Despite its small size, Ecuador comprises of a greater diversity within its confines than any other Andean nation. From the coastal lowland to the misty cloudforests, to windswept sierras, fertile agricultural valleys, stupendously high mountains and active volcanoes or steamy rainforest, the enormous geographical variations of this small country gives rise to a myriad of ecosystems and microclimates, which in turn creates a kaleidoscopic diversity of plant and animal species that have adapted to these special topography. 1600 species of birds can be observed in this small country - the highest number per square meter in all of South America, and 3500 species of orchid - more than any other country on earth, all congregate in this 'biodiversity hotspot'. The best thing about it, from the travellers point of view, is that Ecuador's natural riches are within quite easy reach from the country's capital and main hub, the beautiful colonial city of Quito.
But as if this weren't enough, Ecuador still holds another trump card in its small territory - the world famous Galapagos Islands - every naturalist's dream destination, with its amazing and unique wildlife and geology. Many travellers come to Ecuador for these islands alone, never spending more than a night on either end of their journey in the nation's capital or anywhere else for that matter.
For those blessed with more time, a more extensive tour of the country combining several of its highlights is definitely recommended. And contrary to popular belief, this does not have to be THAT expensive, if you choose a land-based excursion to the Galapagos Islands, instead of a cruise. While cruises are a great way to visit the Galapagos Islands, the quality of the experience varies tremendously depending on the particular cruise company, their guide to visitor ratio, the professional training level of the guide and the size and standard of the yacht. The best cruises do not come cheap, while the cheapest ones may not be worth the money spent on them.
A great alternative are land-based visits to the islands. These offer by far the most intense experience of 'being there' instead of 'getting there'. They also have the advantage that accommodation choices tend to be more flexible and more comfortable, for the price you pay. Land-based tours have access to vehicles on the islands, that can take you to places that cruise companies never visit, and daily activities can, to some degree, be tailored better to your individual needs and wishes. Another advantage is that they can be arranged individually, for your group, departing on any day, rather than having to arrange your holiday schedule with a chosen cruise company's itinerary. Also, the most popular cruises often tend to be fully booked several months (for Christmas departures even years) ahead of time. Land-based tours can be arranged more spontaneously and are ideal for families and small groups. While cruises charge a flat rate per person, land-based tour rates go down if you travel as a group. The more participants in your group, the lower the price per person - and what's more, the tour is completely private so you still get a better guide to visitor ratio.
Saving money on the Galapagos part of your trip, means that you may be able to spend a few extra days visiting some of the other fantastic places this country of contrasts has to offer. From Quito as the pulsating heart of the country most places can be reached easily within a day's drive, or less.
Quito, the capital and nerve center of Ecuador, is where most travellers will enter the country. Unlike many other South and Central American capital cities, it is actually an interesting and pleasant place to stay for a while. The colonial style old city center with its cobbled streets, small alleyways and red tiled roofs is very attractive and invites the visitor to amble and explore. A declared UNESCO world heritage site, the old city contains some of the best preserved examples of Spanish colonial style architecture to be found anywhere on the South American continent. Numerous ancient churches and convents, stuffed with religious art and recycled Inca gold are striking echoes of the past. There are also a number of very interesting museums that provide a good introduction to the country's history and culture.
At 2800m Quito is situated at quite a high elevation - cradled by the surrounding volcanoes,some extinct, but others still quite alive and occasionally kicking. There are many excursions into the nearby highlands that can be undertaken as day trips from the city, such as a visit to the 'navel of the world', the highest point anywhere on the Equator, which towers above the city. It is best to make excursions during the early part of the day, as afternoons can be drizzly or rainy. On a clear morning you will be rewarded by astonishing views over Quito and the surrounding highlands.
Although at first sight the highland landscape may appear desolate and bleak, there is a stark beauty in the wide open spaces, peaked with almost perfect snowcapped volcanic cones, though its many surprising micro-environments, which are hidden in the folds of the landscape remain secluded from sight until one ventures out to explore these secret treasures.
A great way to explore this unique landscape is to stay at one or the other traditional and historic haciendas that are dotted throughout the highlands. Many of these huge traditional stately homes and working ranches have been converted into guesthouses of varying standards - some rustic, others quite luxurious, often furnished with exquisite antiques, and offering cosy fireplaces. Some still maintain their hacienda traditions, raising cattle, maintaining horses and growing food (often organic) for their visitors. The best and most comprehensive insight into this unique world of its own is to take a 'hacienda tour' - which can be tailored to your interests, be it bird watching, mountain biking, hiking or horseback riding, or to combine visiting native villages, national parks and cultural sites of the highlands with exquisite accommodations at different haciendas throughout the region.
Hacienda itineraries are completely customizable - please inquiry
For horse riding itineraries please inquire
For the very fit and adventurous the call of the mountains will be virtually irresistible in Ecuador. The avenue of the volcanoes is a string of alluring peaks and national parks with hiking trails galore. However, be well aware of the high elevation on any excursion you take - always take plenty of water and take your time to acclimatize before attempting any major hikes. Many of the most prominent peaks can be explored with professional guides and equipment on hiking expeditions that last for several days. Both short itineraries of 1 -3 days as well as longer treks are available.
For birdwatchers there are many excellent places where the Andean Condor and other highland species can be observed. Many extinct or dormant volcano craters and their surroundings have been protected as nature preserves to protect their unique ecosystems. The micro-climates present in such sheltered mineral rich habitats have given rise to a unique flora and fauna - and an especially rich birdlife.
The lower highland region, consisting of a patchwork of fields and villages, is the breadbasket of Ecuador, a pastoral agricultural zone where the farming life of the natives has changed little over the centuries. Many villages have specialized in a particular art or craft and you will find exquisite leather works in one, superb textiles in another or woollen wears or pottery in the next. Or you can find all of these artisan treasures at one or the other colourful indigenous markets, which take place on a weekly schedule throughout the region. Otavalo is without a doubt the biggest and best known, but there are many others slightly off the beaten path, that are less touristy and more authentic.
Otavalo has an additional appeal though, and that is its geographic location in the northern lake district, a beautiful region of highland lakes. There are also some pre-columbian ruins and several Nature Reserves, such as El Angel, which protects a rare species of highland plants known as 'frailejones'. These rather fierce looking botanical curiosities, have sometimes been referred to as 'botanical soldiers'. They are still common in Colombia, but have become rare in Ecuador - El Angel is one of the last places where they can be seen.
Beyond (and below) the highlands Ecuador offers some unbelievably biodiverse ecosystems. The transitional zones from one region to the next is truly incredible.
While lowland rainforests can be visited in other South American countries with the same amount of effort and cost involved, Ecuador's gem is the extensive and easily accessible cloud forest. Nowhere in the Andes can cloud forest be so easily reached as from Quito. This mysterious high altitude montane forest is truly spectacular, with all the mosses, orchids and epiphytes draped over gnarled trees, shrouded in a misty haze. The rich diversity of specially adapted plants of this region in turn give rise to a very large number of endemic birds and animals and since the trees are not as tall as they are in the lowlands, the wildlife is much closer to eyelevel than in the Amazon Basin. And thanks to the high occurance of endemism, the cloud forest is one of the premier regions for bird watching and wildlife observation.
Mindo village is among the best known sites for bird watching in the cloud forest. There is an official protected area, which is off limits to tourists, as well as private reserves with hiking trails that can be explored independently or with a guide. There a number of good lodges here, some specifically for birders, though visitors with a less specific interest also find a range of other activities on offer, such as horseback riding, inner tubing, hiking and mountain biking.
But Mindo is just one among many sites of interest for the serious birder and some of the remoter lodges hold perhaps more promise. Short trips can be arranged, from 3-7 days, that visit several of the best known birding sites and cock of the rock leks.
The cloud forest is also a wonderland of waterfalls and rivers, which offer some of the best opportunities for rafting to be found in South America. There are some easy rafting trips and some that require a good deal of experience - but all of them are quite spectacular and will get you into places that simply cannot be viewed from any other angle. If you want to know more about some of these trips, please inquire, as the details are not posted on the website.
One great place to try a bit of rafting on a river that does not present really difficult challenges, can be accessed from Papallacta Termes. This Spa/Eco Resort offers a package that combines a stay at the beautiful hot springs hotel with a day's rafting adventure that is suitable for beginners. There are also a number of hiking trails in the area, though only Spanish speaking guides are available for tours.
Below the cloud forest the terrain changes to lowland rainforest - a region known as 'the Oriente' in Ecuador. Sadly Ecuador's rain forest, among the most bio-diverse rain forests on the planet, has come under a lot of pressure, notably from the logging and oil industry. Even supposedly protected areas like Yasuni National Park are not entirely off limits. Illegal loggers not only forge roads into pristine habitats and destroy their integrity by their tree slaughter, but they also bring diseases to very isolated communities that have no immunity to such viral attacks. It has been difficult to stop the ruthless destruction, legal or illegal and the deep scars they have left on the forest cannot be ignored.
However, thus far, quite a large area of almost untouched forest still exists beyond the oil refineries and drilling sites. Currently Ecuadorian politics appear to be addressing environmental concerns more 'head on' than any administration before them, but it remains to be seen whether their efforts will in fact protect the forest and the people, plants and animals that live there. Policing even the best intended environmental protection act is quite another matter than simply passing the law.
Perhaps it is wishful thinking to hope that eco-travel can really change things in the face of these rather more lucrative forms of exploitation. But at least it is providing an alternative source of income and introducing the novel idea that the living forest itself is the greatest treasure, not the oil rich ground it grows on or the value of its timber. The native communities here are angry about the poisoning of their ancestral land and recognize the potential of ecotourism as an educational tool to teach people not just about the mysteries of the forest, but also about the forces that threaten its integrity and survival.
There are more eco-lodges run solely or in cooperation with various native communities in Ecuador than in any other South American country. This provides a unique opportunity to really get to know these native people, learn about their values, their lifestyles, their traditions and their struggles against those who would try to push them off their lands so their natural resources can be exploited. In some communities it is even possible to arrange homestays within a native community. This is for true adventurers and 'normal' tourist comforts should be expected. But it is a great way to really meet the people if you don't mind 'roughing it'.
For those who seek more creature comforts there are a number of excellent eco-lodges in the rainforest, most of them concentrated on the Napo River and close to Yasuni National Park.
Napo Wildlife Center, Sani Lodge, Kapawi Lodge and Huaorani Lodge are all partially or completely run by native communities. Due to the extremely high bird count in Ecuador, many lodges have specialized in providing amenities for birders, such as observation towers tall enough to view the canopy at birds-eye level, or constructing elaborate hanging walkways amidst the trees to facilitate easier observation. Rainforest programs typically run for 4-6 days and most involve a short flight from Quito.
An area that is largely ignored by travellers are the western slopes of the Andes and the coastal region. Whereas the Peruvian coast is practically all desert, in Ecuador it feels tropical. Originally a densely forested, wet tropical habitat with an incredible rate of endemism, this region has fallen prey to heavy economic exploitation as the forest had to give way to intensive cash crop agriculture. Only pockets of the original forest and mangroves survive in Ecuador near the Colombian border. One of the best places to explore this habitat is the Reserva Ecologica Cayapas Mataje, in the vicinity of San Lorenzo, which protects some of the tallest mangroves in the world.
Guayaquil, the main city in this region is actually bigger than Quito as far as population density is concerned. It is a bustling port town, though most people will only briefly encounter it on their way to or from the Galapagos. There are quite a number of beach resorts of varying degrees of intensity - some known hot spots for surfers and beach bums such as Atacames, others like Sua, Same, Muisne and Canoe attracting a more sedate, nature orientated crowd.
On the southern coast there is yet another interesting site for birders and nature lovers, known as the Parque Nacional Machalilla, which consists of both dry and humid forests. The beaches are superb and the nearby Isla de la Plata island, where many marine birds and animals can be observed, is the cheap alternative to a full lengths Galapagos excursion.
Ecuador has much to offer to anyone interested in nature, culture and adventurous outdoor pursuits. And the beauty of it is that even in a short period of time one can see and experience many different facets of this fascinating country.
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