The Galapagos Islands may be its star attraction but there are plenty of mainland sights to shout about in Ecuador, says Jeannine Williamson
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Ecuador may be the baby of Latin America but it’s big on sights, with distinct and diverse regions brimming with historical, cultural and natural splendors. Climb one of the world’s tallest active volcanoes, cross two hemispheres, explore the Amazonian jungle, relax on balmy Pacific beaches and have close-up encounters with marine life, all in the space of one vacation.
The wildlife wonderland of the Galapagos — made up of 13 major islands and seven smaller isles — are Ecuador’s best-known and most visited destination. The isles are home to giant tortoises, sea lions, iguanas and penguins, and divers can swim in the company of dolphins, sea turtles, manta rays and large shoals of fish.
However, mainland Ecuador, with its legacy of ancient civilizations and Spanish conquests, also has much to offer. The Ministry of Tourism has launched its new marketing campaign Four Worlds, showcasing the biodiversity and attractions in the Galapagos, Pacific Coast, Andes and Amazon regions. These range from the Cruise Train, a historic railroad running through the country from Quito to Guayaquil, and activities such as birdwatching — Ecuador has more than 1,600-recorded species, twice as many as
Last year the country welcomed 1.5 million tourist arrivals, an increase of 14% on 2013, with the US its top international market. Major trade investments this year have included a $750 million cash injection in 23 tourism related projects, including hotels. On the transport front, American Airlines has submitted plans for a five-times-a-week Dallas-Quito route from December.
With land and cruise-based itineraries, there are many options to discover Ecuador.
Gimme 5: Must-sees
1. GALAPAGOS ISLANDS: Located 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos are the jewel in the country’s crown. A true marvel of nature, the islands have a self-contained ecosystem providing a home to nearly 2,000 species of plants and animals that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. They inspired Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking theory of evolution.
2. QUITO: Straddling the equator, Quito was the first ever city to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the old town is the largest and best preserved in Latin America. Situated at an altitude of nearly 10,000 feet, Quito is the world’s second highest capital city and offers even loftier views from the cable car that runs to the summit of the Pichincha volcano.
3. AMAZON: Ecuador’s share of the Amazon rainforest, known as el Oriente, is a 30-minute flight from Quito, usually followed by a boat trip to reach one of the tourist lodges. Early morning and evening safaris take tourists into the heart of the lush jungle that is home to 300 types of tropical birds and more than half of Ecuador’s
4. COTOPAXI NATIONAL PARK: Showcasing the best of the Ecuadorian Andes, the park is located 50 miles outside Quito and offers a variety of sightseeing and active day trips. The perfectly symmetrical 19,347ft Cotopaxi volcano — the world’s highest active volcano — creates an awesome backdrop to the park’s treeless plateau and craggy, green countryside.
5. QUILOTOA LOOP: Winding through the volcanic hills and riverbeds in the Central Andes, the 124-mile Quilotoa Loop is an unforgettable journey through some of mainland Ecuador’s most breathtaking scenery. It takes around eight hours to complete by bus, but most visitors choose to break up the journey by traveling over a period of two or three days.
Ecuador offers excellent value for money across the spectrum, from isolated Amazonian rainforest lodges to mid-range and luxury properties, and familiar hotel chains including Hilton, Wyndham, Marriott and Sheraton. This summer, the French hotel chain Accor announced a $100m plan to construct 10 Ibis hotels. The first property, in Quito, is scheduled to open in July 2016, followed by another in Guayaquil in 2017. Haciendas are a highlight of Ecuador’s accommodation.
The grand farming estates of colonial times have been converted into atmospheric lodgings that retain original features such as open fireplaces. Some are still working farms, making their own produce and keeping horses that guests can ride. In the rainforest, many lodges are linked to ecotourism projects, providing work and income for indigenous people. They range from basic shacks with no electricity to lodges with all modern comforts.
Just 30 minutes outside Quito, the hacienda was built in in 1730 by the Marquees of Miraflores and has been owned by generations of the same family ever since. Set on seven acres, the six suites in the main building are adorned with art and family heirlooms. hacienda-ecuador.com
NAPO WILDLIFE CENTER
Accessed by speed boat and canoe up a narrow tributary, the center is set on 82 acres of rainforest and run as an eco-project benefitting the local Anangu community. Sixteen private lodgings surround the main building and restaurant and there’s a 20ft observation tower. napowildlifecenter.com
HOTEL ORO VERDE
The only hotel member of Leading Hotels of the World in Ecuador, the five-star property faces the Pacific Ocean in Guayaquil, gateway to the Galapagos Islands. The hotel has five bars and restaurants and its 236 rooms and suites have been refurbished. oroverdeguayaquil.com
FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE WINTER 2015 ISSUE OF ASTA NETWORK.