The Galapagos might be the most enticing of Ecuador’s jewels, but the mainland is worth more than just a stopover. Discover toucans and pumas, volcanoes and rainforests, indigenous communities and colonial architecture with these unmissable destinations.
Home to almost 20% of the world’s plant species and nearly 20% of its bird diversity, Ecuador’s cloud forest is a magnet for biologists, birders, and explorers from across the world. Although it is located mere hours from the capital city of Quito, this is a wildlife sanctuary that is home to spectacled bears, jaguars, sloths, howler monkeys and pumas. You might not spot all these hallowed creatures on your visit but the crashing rivers and waterfalls, Tarzan vines and walking palm trees are the background to a truly unique adventure.
Stay at spectacular Mashpi Lodge, a cocoon of luxury in the clouds with exceptional attention to detail and service plus a cable car that skims the canopy, allowing an unprecedented perspective of this mysterious part of the forest.
Bigger, hotter and at a lower elevation than its lesser known, cloudier cousin, Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest is the largest region in the entire country. Adventure awaits among the towering ceibo trees that far outdate the country’s 15th-century cities. This steaming jungle is populated with brightly-colored parrots, palm-sized tamarind monkeys and indigenous peoples who still strive to preserve ancient tribal ways. Canoe down rivers so wide you can barely see to the other side and through slow-moving creeks lined with gnarled tree roots. Caiman, piranha and other feared (yet mostly harmless) beasts take shelter here.
Stay in rustic hotels Sacha Lodge or La Selva Lodge, each situated on its own patch of paradise on a tranquil lake where you’re likely to spot kingfishers, giant otters, and a river dolphin if you’re lucky.
Volcanoes and great lakes, grand haciendas and indigenous communities: the Andean region is the romantic Ecuador of many travelers’ imaginations. The great snow-capped volcanic slopes to climb and admire include the world’s highest point, Cayambe, and active Cotapaxi, a luminous, enticing peak that looms as you descend the Panamericana highway skirting Quito towards the north. From here, you will encounter Otavalo where markets managed by elegantly-dressed indigenous women and men brim with colorful textiles and leather goods, hand-made and perfected over centuries of craft. Horseback riding with chagras, the traditional Ecuadorian cowboys, promises gallops towards the horizon accompanied by the wild stallions that graze on these planes. The Páramo del Angel, a natural reserve dotted with the surreal, giant espeletia trees (known frailejones) is one of the stranger enclaves to be found along the route of Tren Ecuador. This restored railway line crosses perilous canyons and ascends almost-sheer cliffs on its beautiful passage.
Spend at least two nights at Hacienda Zuleta, an impressive historic farmhouse that was once home to former presidents and literary masters. The boutique hotel specializes in authentic Andean experiences in a luxurious and welcoming setting.
Ecuador’s colonial past is not just history: cities and urban populations here live and breathe its influence every day in their architecture, cuisine, culture and language. Quito and Cuenca are the country’s largest and best-preserved colonial cities awash with public buildings, squares and churches dating back to the 15th-century Spanish invasion. In Quito, the capital city, the golden La Compañia church, Itchimbia park with sweeping views, and charming, balcony-lined streets are treasure troves of exploration and day-dreaming.
Cuenca’s pristine river, glorious cultural museums and the nearby Ingarpirca Inca ruins make it every bit as attractive. Both cities are renowned for their gastronomical scenes, streets ahead of the rest of the country in their profound concepts and attention to ingredients.
Stay in historic town houses and boutique mansions like Casa Gangotena, one of the most exclusive and sought-after hotels in South America.