Ecuador


Ecuador destinations

about Postcard-pretty colonial centers, waves splashing white-sand beaches, Kichwa villages, Amazonian rainforest and the breathtaking Andes – a dazzling array of wonders is squeezed into this compact country.

Cultural Splendor

The historic centers of Quito and Cuenca are lined with photogenic plazas, 17th-century churches and monasteries, and beautifully restored mansions. Wandering the cobblestone streets amid architectural treasures from Spanish colonial days is a fine way to delve into the past. Beyond the cities, the Ecuadorian landscape unfolds in all its startling variety. There are Andean villages renowned for their colorful textiles and sprawling markets, Afro-Ecuadorian towns where days end with meals of fresh seafood and memorable sunsets, and remote settlements in the Amazon where shamans still harvest the traditional rainforest medicines of their ancestors.

Andean Adventure

Setting off on a hike in the Andes can seem like stepping into a fairy tale: a patchwork of small villages, gurgling brooks and rolling fields and maybe a condor slowly wheeling overhead. Although the view from the top is sublime, you don’t have to scale a mountain to enjoy the Andes. These verdant landscapes make a fine backdrop for mountain biking, horseback riding or hiking from village to village, sleeping at local guesthouses along the way. Ecuador’s other landscapes offer equally alluring adventures, from surfing tight breaks off the Pacific coast to white-water rafting rivers along the jungle-clad banks of the Oriente.

Wildlife-Watching

The famous Galápagos Islands, with their volcanic, otherworldly landscapes, are a magnet for wildlife lovers. Here, you can get up close and personal with massive lumbering tortoises, scurrying marine iguanas (the world’s only seagoing lizard), doe-eyed sea lions, prancing blue-footed boobies and a host of other unusual species both on land and sea. The Amazon rainforest offers a vastly different wildlife-watching experience. Set out on the rivers and forested trails in search of monkeys, sloths, toucans and river dolphins. Some lodges also have canopy towers offering magnificent views (and a better chance to see birdlife). Mindo's cloud forest is considered a birder's paradise, and the country has counted more than 1600 avian species.

Sublime Scenery

After days of Ecuadorian adventures, there are many appealing places where you can go to relax amid awe-inspiring scenery. Head to the highlands to recharge at a historic hacienda, or find Zen-like beauty at a cloud-forest lodge near Mindo. There are peaceful, timeless mountain villages like Vilcabamba and picturesque former gold-mining towns such as Zaruma that offer a perfect antidote to the vertiginous rush of modern-day life. And for a coastal getaway, you'll have plenty of options, from tiny end-of-the-road settlements like Ayampe and Olón to charming towns on the Galápagos, with great beaches and magnificent sunsets.

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A capital city high in the Andes, Quito is dramatically situated, squeezed between mountain peaks whose greenery is concealed by the afternoon mist. Modern apartment buildings and modest concrete homes creep partway up their slopes, and busy commercial thoroughfares lined with shops and choked with traffic turn into peaceful neighborhoods on Sundays. Warm and relaxed, traditional Ecuadorian Sierra culture – overflowing market stands, shamanistic healers, fourth-generation hatmakers – mixes with a vibrant and sophisticated culinary and nightlife scene.

The city's crown jewel is its 'Old Town,' a Unesco World Heritage Site packed with colonial monuments and architectural treasures. No sterile museum mile, everyday life pulses along its handsomely restored blocks with 17th-century facades, picturesque plazas and magnificent art-filled churches. Travelers, and many locals too, head to the 'gringolandia' of Mariscal Sucre, a compact area of guesthouses, travel agencies, multicultural eateries and teeming bars.

Sights

With its narrow streets, restored colonial architecture and lively plazas, Quito’s Centro Histórico is a marvel to wander. Built centuries ago by indigenous artisans and laborers, Quito’s churches, convents, chapels and monasteries are cast in legend and steeped in history. It’s a bustling area, full of yelling street vendors, ambling pedestrians, tooting taxis, belching buses and whistle-blowing police officers trying to direct traffic in the narrow one-way streets. The area is magical; it's a place where the more you look, the more you find.

Churches are open daily (usually until 6pm), but are crowded with worshippers on Sunday. They regularly close between 1pm and 3pm for lunch.

The heart of the Old Town is the Plaza Grande, a picturesque, palm-fringed square surrounded by historic buildings and bustling with everyday life.

La Ronda – a completely restored narrow cobblestone lane lined with postcard-perfect 17th-century buildings housing festive restaurants, bars and colorful shops – comes alive on Friday and Saturday nights when canelazo (aguardiente with hot cider and cinnamon) vendors keep the crowds nice and warm and live music spills outdoors. Placards along the walls describe (in Spanish) some of the street’s history and the artists, writers and political figures who once resided here.

Activities

Those seeking a bit of adventure can spend the day rock-climbing, hiking amidst volcanoes and cycling – all within city limits.

Cycling

Local mountain-biking companies rent bikes and offer excellent tours, including one-day rides through the páramo (high-altitude Andean grasslands) of Parque Nacional Cotopaxi as well as downhill descents, and trips incorporating a stop at Papallacta hot springs. Two-day trips take in Cotopaxi and Chimborazo or Cotopaxi and Quilotoa. Single-day trips cost about $60. Compare prices and trips before committing to a particular operator.

Free Wheeling in Quito

Every Sunday, the entire length of Avenida Amazonas and most of the Old Town closes to cars from 9am to 2pm as thousands of cyclists take to the street for the weekly ciclopaseo. The entire ride (some 30km), which you can cycle part or all of, stretches past the old airport, through the Old Town and into the southern reaches of Quito. It’s a marvelous way to experience the city. Bikes can be hired along the way for $3 an hour.

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Sleeping

Most travelers tend to stay near Mariscal Sucre (known as the Mariscal), a guesthouse- and hostel-packed district. The quieter neighborhood of La Floresta is a pleasant alternative and begins only a few blocks away. There's a good range of accommodations in the Old Town (including most of Quito's best top-end hotels), which offer easy access to its museums, churches and other sights. Here, a lack of nightlife is the downside.

Entertainment

Quito's theaters stage a variety of dramas, dance performances and concerts, so check ahead to see what's on. Look out too for performances by local musicians playing everything from salsa and merengue to rock, jazz and blues. Several bars and restaurants in the Old Town and Mariscal Sucre have regular live music nights.

Eating

Ecuador’s culinary capital is a great place to explore the classic dishes from the Andes and beyond. The city's rich and varied restaurant scene also offers a fine selection of international fare. All budgets and tastes are catered for, and you’ll find everything from modern sushi restaurants to Italian trattorias.

Drinking & Nightlife

Most of the farra (nightlife) in Quito is concentrated in and around Mariscal Sucre. A weekend night wandering La Ronda, a cobblestone lane lined with bars and restaurants in the Old Town, shouldn't be missed. For more relaxed, low-key hangouts, head to one of the sophisticated spots in La Floresta, Guápulo or Benalcázar. A spate of microbreweries have opened recently in the city.

The Mariscal

Mariscal Sucre, otherwise known as the Mariscal, has bars that, for better or worse, are generally raucous. Plaza Foch is the neighborhood's epicenter, where the line between ‘bar’ and ‘dance club’ is blurry. Bars with dancing often charge admission, which usually includes a drink. Monday to Wednesday nights tend to draw an older crowd, while university-aged Ecuadorians swarm into the area on Friday and Saturday nights.

Hitting the dance floor of one of Quito’s salsatecas (nightclubs where dancing to salsa music is the main attraction) is a must. If you don’t know how to salsa, try a few classes first.

Shopping

There are some excellent crafts stores in Mariscal Sucre. If buying from street stalls, you should bargain; in the fancier stores, prices are normally fixed. Note that souvenirs are a little cheaper outside Quito, if you have the time and inclination to search them out.

Travel with Children

There’s plenty to keep the kiddies happy in Quito. Parque La Carolina is a good place to start: you can pedal around the lake in a paddleboat, or take in the natural history museum or the Vivarium, where the snakes, turtles and lizards will surely interest and/or frighten them. Nearby, the Jardín Botánico has a hands-on area for kids. The park is also home to the Mundo Juvenil, with a tiny planetarium, kids' shows and changing exhibits.

At the base of the TelefériQo there’s an amusement park, Vulqano Park, complete with bumper cars and other rides.

Housed in a former textile factory south of Old Town, Museo Interactivo de Ciencia has loads of hands-on exhibits to keep all ages engaged, from toddlers to tweens.

Built on the lower slopes of Pichincha and at the site of the city's first water distribution tanks, Museo del Agua-Yaku tells the story of the city's relationship to the most vital resource through interactive exhibits good for kids.

Tourist-oriented babysitting services are difficult to find in Quito unless you’re staying at one of the city’s top-end hotels, in which case the hotel will arrange for a sitter.

LGBT Travellers

Quito has a small but active gay scene, with most of the bars and clubs located in Mariscal Sucre. A gay pride parade takes place in June; check the Orgullo LGBTI Ecuador Facebook page (www.facebook.com/orgulloEcuador) for details of the parade and other events.

Bring your passport for entry to clubs.

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Guayaquil

is not only the beating commercial heart of Ecuador but a vibrant sprawling city, growing ever more confident. A half-dozen high-rises give it a big-city profile, and several hillsides are engulfed by colorful favelas, but it’s the Río Guayas’ malecón (the riverfront town square) that defines the city’s identity.

The picturesque barrio of Las Peñas, which perches over the river, anchors the city both geographically and historically, while the principal downtown thoroughfare Avenida 9 de Octubre funnels office workers, residents and shoppers into one hybrid stream. Amid revitalized squares, parks and massive urban-renewal projects, the city has a growing theater, film and arts scene and lively bars, fueled in part by several large universities.

Note that all flights to the Galápagos Islands either stop at or originate in Guayaquil, so the city is the next best place after Quito to set up a trip.

Sights

Las Peñas & Cerro Santa Ana

These two historic neighborhoods are some of Guayaquil's oldest, with parts untouched by the many fires that have ravaged the city over the years. Perched here for more than 400 years, the streets and buildings have been restored into an idealized version of a quaint South American hillside village, with brightly painted homes and cobblestone alleyways. The views from the top are spectacular, especially at night. Small, informal, family-run restaurants and neighborhood bars line the steps and it’s safe, patrolled by friendly security officers who make sure foot traffic up the steep stairway flows unimpeded.

Downtown

Avenida 9 de Octubre, downtown Guayaquil’s main commercial street, is lined with shoe stores, high-end electronics shops, department stores and fast-food restaurants.

Parque Bolívar Area

Guayaquil may be the only city in the world that has land iguanas, some over a meter in length, living downtown. These prehistoric-looking animals (a different species from those found in the Galápagos) are a startling sight in one of Guayaquil’s most famous plazas, Parque Bolívar, which is also known as Parque Seminario (or, Parque de las Iguanas!). Around its small ornamental gardens are several of Guayaquil’s top-end hotels. You may also spot the reptiles in lanes of Cerro Santa Ana.

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Sleeping

The city has a range of options from plush high-end business-style hotels to boutique guesthouses and hostels. Some visitors choose to stay in the characterless northern suburbs, but that is really no more convenient to the airport or bus terminal than staying downtown, and you’ll be forced to take taxis wherever you go. If you do choose to stay there, be sure to base your decision on each accommodation merits.

Eating

Guayaquileños love their encebollado, a tasty soup made with fish, yuca and onion, and garnished with popcorn and chifles (crispy fried banana slices). The best encebollados are found in cheap mom-and-pop restaurants, which usually sell out by lunchtime. Cangrejo (crab) is another local favorite. Many of the best restaurants are in the northwestern suburb of Urdesa, 4km northwest of downtown.

Drinking & Nightlife

Las Peñas, the hillside to the north of downtown, is the place to enjoy a sangria or glass of wine, while more chic offerings can be found in the northern suburb of Urdesa and the Samborondón area. Adjacent to Las Penas, Puerto Santa Ana is a newer hangout with riverside views and the malecón to stroll, if a bit yuppie-plastic-Miami Beach.

Entertainment

As Ecuador's biggest and most urbane city, Guayaquil offers across-the-board entertainment, from the latest Hollywood and indy movies, to adrenaline-pumping soccer matches.

Shopping

One of the largest malls in all of South America is Mall del Sol near the airport. San Marino, in the suburb of Kennedy, is a large, equally high-end mall. The City Mall has an enormous statue of a Great Green Macaw, which is 65 feet in length and composed of more than 70,000 colored tiles.

Travel with Children

Foreigners traveling with children are still a curiosity in Ecuador (especially if they are gringos), and a crying or laughing child at your side can quickly break down barriers between you and locals. Parents will likely be met with extra-friendly attention: people in Ecuador love children. Lonely Planet’s Travel with Children is an excellent resource.

Practicalities

Children pay full fare on buses if they occupy a seat, but they often ride for free if they sit on a parent’s lap. The fare for children under 12 years is halved for domestic flights (and they get a seat), while infants under two cost 10% of the fare (but they don’t get a seat). In hotels, the general rule is simply to bargain.

While kids’ meals are not normally offered in restaurants, it is perfectly acceptable to order a meal to split between two children or an adult and a child.

Changing facilities are rarities in all but the best restaurants. Breastfeeding is acceptable in public. Formula foods can be difficult to come by outside the large big-city supermarkets, but disposable diapers are sold at most markets throughout the country.

Safety seats are generally hard to come by in rental cars (be sure to arrange one ahead of time), and in taxis they’re unheard of. This is, after all, a country where a family of four can blaze across town on a motorcycle.

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After Quito, Cuenca is Ecuador’s most important and beautiful colonial city. But don’t say that to the locals, who insist that their laid-back culture, cleaner streets and more agreeable weather outclass the capital, hands down.

Dating from the 16th century, Cuenca’s historic center, a Unesco World Heritage Site with its trademark skyline of massive rotundas and soaring steeples, is a place time keeps forgetting: nuns march along cobblestone streets, kids in Catholic-school uniforms skip past historic churches, and old ladies spy on promenading lovers from their geranium-filled balconies.

The city is the center of many craft traditions, including ceramics, metalwork and the internationally famous panama hat – and the nearby villages offer many more handicrafts besides.

Sights

Plaza de San Sebastián

Marking the western edge of the historical center, this quiet plaza, Cuenca's most beautiful, is anchored by the 19th-century Church of San Sebastián. In 1739, when the plaza was still used for bullfights, it was a mob of cuencanos (Cuenca folks) – not the bull – who mauled a member of explorer La Condamine’s geodesic expedition here, apparently because of an affair with a local woman.

Plaza de San Francisco

Resplendently colonial yet curiously ramshackle, this plaza's set-piece is the 19th-century Church of San Francisco which features an important gold-leaf altar from the colonial period. The plaza itself is flanked by old arcaded buildings with wooden balconies, as well as one of Cuenca's main street markets.

Parque Calderón & Around

The city's largest plaza is abutted by two stunning cathedrals. The park's name comes from independence hero Abdón Calderón, whose monument graces the center – accessed through prettily hedged walkways.

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Sleeping

Cuenca has a vast selection of hotels, many of which are located in old restored houses and mansions. They come in all price categories, but still run a tad higher than elsewhere. During vacation periods they fill up fast and go up in price.

Eating

Cuenca's culinary landscape feeds cravings for Indian curry, Colombian arepas, and Austrian strudel. Starch-weary palates will rejoice.

Drinking & Nightlife

Cuenca has a lot of nightlife: pick from intimate taverns with live music to Hollywood-style clubs catering to the hook-up scene. Discos are open Thursday through Saturday nights from 10pm, but things don’t really get moving until around midnight. Bars are generally open nightly, often as early as 5pm.

A good bet for a wild night out is Presidente Córdova around Hermano Miguel and along Calle Larga from Benigno Malo right down to Av Todos los Santos: bar-clubs with dance floors, dressed-up 20-somethings and myriad themes.

Many of the town’s museums offer theater and cultural performances, and the galleries in the El Vado neighborhood are also worth checking out. Movies cost about $4 per person and are listed in Cuenca’s newspaper El Mercurio.

Shopping

Cuenca is the center of the paja toquilla (toquilla straw, or ‘panama’) hat trade. Cuencano nested baskets, gold- and silver-filigreed jewelry from the nearby village of Chordeleg, and ceramics of varying quality are typical finds. Cuenca's markets are some of the best places to pick up these products.

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This town, the largest in terms of population and size in the Galápagos, is a surprise to most visitors, who don’t expect to find anything but plants and animals on the islands. Puerto Ayora looks and feels like a fairly prosperous mainland Ecuadorian coastal town, despite the sea lions and pelicans hanging around the waterfront. Most of the hotels, restaurants and tourist facilities line Avenida Charles Darwin, and the airport is on Isla Baltra, around an hour away to the north. Several blocks inland, travel agencies give way to ordinary, humble dwellings and shops. Some descendants of the handful of Norwegian, Swiss and German families that originally settled here four generations ago maintain a presence in the tourism industry.

Activities

Diving, surfing, biking: take your pick.

Las Grietas

For nice swimming and snorkeling, head to Las Grietas, a water-filled crevice in the rocks. Talented and fearless locals climb the nearly vertical walls to plunge gracefully (and sometimes clumsily) into the water below. Take a water taxi (per person $0.80 from 6am to 7pm) to the dock for the Angermeyer Point restaurant, then walk past the Finch Bay Hotel, then past an interesting salt mine, and finally up and around a lava-rock-strewn path to the water. Good shoes are recommended for the 700m walk from the dock. Keep an eye on any valuables that you leave on the rocks.

Diving

Because liveaboards are costly and space is limited, most divers experience the underwater wonders of the Galápagos on day trips booked from Puerto Ayora. These are suitable for intermediate to advanced divers – currents can be strong and most are drift dives.

Gordon Rocks, Caamaño Islet, La Lobería, Punta Estrada and Punta Carrión are popular dives sites, as is North Seymour Island, a short boat trip from Isla Baltra. Devil’s Crown, Enderby or Champion off the northern tip of Isla Santa María are good for barracudas, rays and sharks. One of the recommended sites for those with a few dives under their belt is Academy Bay off the Puerto Ayora harbor.

The standard rate for two boat dives is $210 to $250 (about $20 less if booked ‘last minute’); all offer PADI certification courses to newcomers and have English-speaking divemasters.

Surfing

There are several good surf breaks near Puerto Ayora itself, including La Ratonera and Bazán near the Charles Darwin Research Station beach. If hauling your board a few kilometers is no problem, Tortuga Bay has several good breaks.

An hour or so by boat takes you to Punta Blanca and further north to Cerro Gallina, Las Palmas Chica and Las Palmas Grande, considered to be three of the best breaks in the Galápagos. There are also several breaks off the west side of Isla Baltra.

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Sleeping

You get much less bang for your buck compared to the mainland. Most of the hotels are within a few blocks of Avenida Darwin, and prices tend to rise during the heaviest tourism seasons (December to January and June to August).

Eating

More than a half-dozen popular food kiosks sell inexpensive and hearty meals – mainly seafood – along Charles Binford, just east of Avenida Baltra. It's liveliest at night, particularly on weekends, when there’s a festive atmosphere among the outdoor tables set out on the street.

Drinking & Nightlife

Most of the restaurants are also good places for a relaxing drink, and several double as happening bars.

Shopping

Every imaginable item has been covered with a Galápagos logo or creature and is on sale in Puerto Ayora.

Getting There

Speedboat

Lanchas (speedboats) head daily to the islands of Isabela ($30, two to 2¼ hours) and San Cristóbal ($30, two hours). Boats depart to Isabela/ San Cristóbal at 7am and 2pm. There's also boat service to Floreana ($30, 1¾ hours) at 8am, but this service is irregular, often running on demand only, so it is best to find out the schedule from an operator in Puerto Ayora and then plan your trip accordingly. The rides can be rough and unpleasant for some. Advance reservations aren’t required, but it's wise to purchase tickets a day in advance. A string of offices near the pier sell boat tickets to the islands of San Cristóbal, Isabela and Floreana.

What to do in Puerto Ayora

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