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Essential Ecuador

Amazon River, Ecuador. Image: CorbisAmazon River, Ecuador. Image: Corbis

While Quito and the Galapagos remain its tourism stars, Ecuador generously rewards repeat exploration, says Chris Moss

Ecuador may be dwarfed in size by its larger neighbors but it sure packs a lot in: two mighty Andean mountain ranges, a Pacific coast dotted with beach resorts, the magnificent Avenue of the Volcanoes, the culturally dynamic capital Quito, some of South America’s best rainforest experiences in the Amazon headwaters — and of course the wildlife wonderland of the Galapagos.

Ecuador is consistently ranked high in consumer and industry surveys — with Quito and the Galapagos topping the bill — while tourism figures are on the rise. The major refurbishment of Quito that started a decade ago keeps all eyes on the capital, helped by new openings such as the Casa Gangotena luxury hotel. Even more interest was sparked by the opening of the ultra-modern $8.2m Mashpi Lodge in spring 2012, in the Andes close to Quito, and the Tren Crucero tourist train, which launched in June. This 280-mile journey ascends up to 11,800ft in the Ecuadorian Highlands and is an easy way for first-time visitors to see a lot on short itineraries.

The Ecuadorian Amazon is also expanding its offering. Most riverside resorts range from rustic to comfortable, but in July 2013, Anakonda Amazon Cruises launched an 18-suite luxury vessel, enabling people to meet local communities, float along the Napo River and take in wildlife amid the comforts of a five-star hotel. Anakonda also debuted a glamping program, where guests camp but with gourmet meals, excellent amenities and expert guides.

Ecuador’s haciendas (rural estates) have long been a favorite with visitors in search of luxury. The opening in February of the Hacienda Piman strengthens the offering and provides a great base for exploring northern Ecuador. Other recent developments include the new Mariscal Sucre International Airport in Quito, and the launch of the Ministry of Tourism’s Ecuador Specialist Program. www.ecuador-specialist.com

NATURE LOVERS

We suggest: The Galapagos Islands.

Why: The best way to experience the Galapagos is via a group tour on the water. Cruises vary from small luxury yachts to larger cruise ships and sailing boats and while almost all visit the central islands of Isabela and Santa Cruz, itineraries vary. Whichever route you opt for, you’ll see the iconic species: giant Galapagos tortoises, boobies, iguanas, lava lizards. Kayaking around the bays and snorkeling is highly recommended as it allows close encounters with sea turtles, penguins, flightless cormorants and even hammerhead sharks. Bird life is wonderful too — from the deck you’ll see frigate birds and possibly albatrosses, and on terra firma you’ll have Darwin’s finches and mockingbirds flapping around you.

Wow factor: Swimming and snorkeling with white-tipped reef sharks off Isabela.

Where else: Just 17 miles off the Ecuadorian coast, Isla de la Plata is home to boobies, sea lions and nesting frigate birds. Great for combining with a beach break in Puerto Lopez or the town of Montanita.

Sample: EcuadorToursOnLine offers the 12-day Lakes, Rainforest, Mountains and Butterflies tour, including time in Quito and Ibarra, before a four-day cruise to the Galapagos. From $4,795. T: 954 234 5186. www.ecuadortoursonline.com

HISTORY HOUNDS

We suggest: Ingapirca Ruins.

Why: A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Ingapirca Ruins are the Inca Empire’s only remaining sun temple and Ecuador’s best pre-Columbian site. Located on a hill at an elevation of 10,500ft, the ruins offer panoramic views over the landscape. They can be reached by a six-mile detour from the Panamericana Highway and can be visited as a day trip from the city of Cuenca.

The ruins comprise a temple, ceremonial area and accommodation for warriors, and are built from local stone. Visits are managed by local Canari — the same indigenous group who lived there when the Incas arrived in the late 15th century. Ingapirca’s growth was curtailed when Spanish settlers ransacked the city and plundered much of its stonework to build churches in the surrounding area.

Wow factor: While much of the site is only foundation stones, the famous rounded Temple of the Sun is well-preserved and photogenic.

Where else: Book a stay at the historic Hacienda San Agustin de Callo, on the fertile plain beneath the Cotopaxi volcano; it’s a beautiful, family-owned estate with lovely courtyards, fine dining, cozy rooms with open fires — and its very own Inca chapel and walls.

Sample: Metropolitan Touring offers a one-day Cuenca and Ingapirca tour, including a driver, guide, lunch and entrance fees, from $88 per person as part of a group, rising to $199 per person for a couple. The tour can also be part of a three-day/two-night Spirit of the Andes road and rail tour taking in Quito, Cotopaxi, Riobamba and Cuenca, priced from $676 per person. T: 1 888 572 0166. www.metropolitan-touring.com

CITY SLICKERS

We suggest: Quito’s historic center.

Why: Ecuador’s capital has undergone a $250m makeover, making it even more attractive to visitors who used only to stay a night on their way to the Galapagos. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1978 for its Spanish colonial architecture — the very first city to be listed — Quito is full of colonial-era churches and yet is still tangibly an Andean Indian locale. With the mighty Pichincha volcano towering over the western edge of the city, and at an altitude of 9,350ft above sea level, Quito is breathtaking in other ways. Just outside the city is the monument marking the equator; a bit of a tourist trap but still a popular photo opportunity for those en route to the cloud forest of Mindo.

Wow factor: The extraordinary La Capilla del Hombre (Chapel of Man) is a huge, mural-filled temple dedicated to peace designed by the most famous Ecuadorian artist, Oswaldo Guayasamin. Nearby is a museum of his work.

Where else: Guayaquil, Ecuador’s most populated metropolis, sits on the coast; it’s a laid-back coastal city with a lovely 1.5-mile-long promenade called the Malecon 2000, teeming with great restaurants and bars.

Sample: International Wildlife Adventures offers a classic city tour of Quito for $60 plus an optional add-on of a visit to the ‘Middle of the World’ equator landmark. Price per person based on two traveling, covering driver and guide. T: 800 808 4492. www.wildlifeadventures.com

ADVENTURE SEEKERS

We suggest: The Amazon.

Why: Ecuador’s Amazon Basin is establishing itself as a wildlife destination to rival Peru and Brazil. Conservation and environmental awareness are on the rise, and indigenous groups are taking control of tourism, meaning visitors receive first-hand knowledge of the wildlife and ecosystems from people who live in the jungle. The biodiversity is astonishing with more than 600 species of birds, mammals such as the giant otter, jaguar and tapir, some 630 species of fish and hundreds of species of amphibians and reptiles. Flights from Quito and Shell take visitors deep in to the heart of the Yasuni National Park, where there are simple but clean lodges, pristine rainforest and hundreds of birds, butterflies, mammals and reptiles.

Wow factor: Canoeing down one of the tributaries. Whether you do this as a passenger or take up the oars yourself, there’s nothing more thrilling than letting the currents and good old muscles carry you stealthily down the Napo, Shiripuno and other Amazon basin rivers.

Where else: Using early 20th-century steam engines, the new Tren Crucero tourist train is one of the most exciting rail journeys on Earth, covering 280 miles from Quito to the coast, ascending to almost 12,000ft en route, visiting Andean communities, and passing 10 volcanoes.

Sample: SouthAmerica.travel offers a three-night tour of the Yasuni National Park, staying at the luxurious Napo Wildlife Center eco-lodge. From $1,370 per person, including all meals, transfers to/from the lodge and daily excursions with English-speaking guides. T: 800 747 4540. www.southamerica.travel

PUBLISHED IN THE WINTER 2013/14 ISSUE OF ASTAnetwork

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