Ecuador: A Lot More Than The Galapagos

Small though it is, Ecuador is one of the most diverse countries in the world, from stark mountain vistas in the Andes to lush Amazon jungle trails.

Americans have a blind spot when it comes to South America. Though Rio and Buenos Aires get plenty of love, this vast and diverse continent deserves to be better appreciated. That may be changing as Peru, Venezuela, Patagonia, and Ecuador are emerging markets for travellers searching for adventure – and not before time.

Traditionally, tourists have viewed Ecuador as a one-two jump from the world-heritage city of Quito to the Galapagos Islands, but this glancing bounce between two (admittedly glorious) points leaves out everything in between.

The in-between ranges from the jungle canopy of the country’s Amazon basin (known in Ecuador as “the Oriente”) to breath-taking panoramas in the Andes where snow-topped mountains crest a patchwork of green pastures and isolated settlements where travelers can while away a morning haggling for an alpaca blanket or scarf before hiking across a dramatic plateau, or around the rim of a crater lake formed by one of the country’s many volcanoes.

One additional plus for those travelling to Ecuador: they use the U.S. dollar, making the inevitable haggling at the craft markets that much easier.

Herewith six reasons for making Ecuador your next vacation destination.

1: It’s a World Heritage site

There’s a reason why Quito, at two miles above sea-level, the world’s second highest capital, was made the UN’s first World Heritage site. The churches in the old city look as though someone vomited gold leaf over everything, and it’s all too easy to while away a day soaking in the bustle and life in the main squares, Plaza San Francisco and Plaza De La Independencia. The famous Panama hat is actually Ecuadorean, and the best made can be found at Homero y Ortega, on Plaza San Francisco Square, from $45 up.

2: The five-star Casa Gangotena 

Situated right on the wide square of Plaza San Francisco, Casa Gangotena, a luxurious five-star hotel that opened in October 2011, easily enjoys the best front yard in the city — and the best beds. A sumptuous breakfast, complete with a cornucopia of exotic fruits, might well be the best meal in all Ecuador. Be sure to try the fresh blackberry juice (“mora”), and then come back at 4pm for the complimentary afternoon tea service.

3: Its diverse climates

Ecuador is a riot of climates and geographies. In the tropical Oriente you can take a canoe through lush jungle, while Lemurs swing through the boughs on the river’s edge. At tranquil Lianna Lodge the cabins have no electricity, so bed times are early. For getting off the grid, it’s hard to beat reading by candlelight against a chorus of whistling and chirping insects. Just remember to use plenty of bug spray.

4: The dramatic scenery

Take a bus from Tena, a ramshackle town with a touch of the Wild West on the edge of the jungle, to Baños, a faded resort town renowned for its outdoor baths fed by spring waters heated by Tungurahua, a still-active volcano that towers over this valley town. The dramatic scenery along the route is well worth the two or three dollar bus fare — and buses in Ecuador provide great theater, crammed with locals hawking everything from food and soda to black market DVDs. In Baños, make sure to start your day with a soak at Piscina de a Virgen, the most picturesque of the outdoor baths, where the locals set the example by starting their day at 5am. The water is blissfully warm, but for a stimulating start to the day follow your dip with the ice-cold showers, fed by a waterfall that plunges past the baths.

5: The Quilotoa Crater

You probably haven’t ever seen anything like the Quilotoa Crater, a moon-like feature high up in the Andes, in the remote region of Cotopaxi that is currently undergoing considerable infrastructure improvements (such as paved roads). The view down to the lake at the crater’s base is mesmerizing. The masochistic will hike down and back up, but for everyone else there are mules and horses to ease the way. If you’re there on a Saturday, check out the excellent market at Zumbahua, a few miles away.

6:An eco-lodge in the Andes

Black Sheep Inn, one of the country’s first eco-lodges, founded by an American couple who passed through as backpackers in 1993, is a true gem with several tricks up its sleeve, including ingenious composting toilets that don’t require flushing, and rustic cabins with commanding views of the Andes. It also boasts the world’s highest frisbee golf course, a guitar-playing manager called Edmundo, and a highly affectionate ginger cat called Popeye.