Ecuador packs a lot of variety into a small package. Indeed, this South American country has carved out a well-deserved role as a tourism hot spot, thanks to savvy marketing as well as an array of attractions and activities that range from the steamy depths of the Amazon jungle to the natural wonders of the Galapagos Islands.
Whether you seek adventure, sports, ecotourism, history, culture or simply a bit of rest and relaxation, Ecuador has something to fit the bill.
Galapagos Islands: It’s easy to see why the famed naturalist Charles Darwin was so impressed with the Galapagos Islands. This remarkable archipelago some 600 miles off the coast is a natural wonderland of unique animal species, and protected land and sea, which allows visitors to get close to wildlife in a way that few destinations on the planet allow. It’s with good reason that this was the first place to be declared a protected natural area by UNESCO and designated a World Natural Heritage Site.
Taking a small-ship cruise is the most common way to see as much as possible of this fascinating area. Visitors usually fly into the airport at Baltra, paying a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station, where they may learn more about the efforts to protect local flora and fauna.
Trained naturalist guides accompany passengers throughout their cruise, visiting such places as Hood Island, where at Punta Suarez visitors may see marine iguanas, mockingbirds, sea lions, and blue- and red-footed boobies. Another popular stop on this island is Gardner Bay, which is good for swimming and snorkeling.
On Fernandina Island, visitors may walk surprisingly close to marine iguanas, as well as families of Galapagos penguins and flightless cormorants. And on Santiago Island, sea lions and fur seals are the stars of the show.
Companies operating Galapagos cruises include Latin Trails (www.latintrails.com), which features the Galapagos Journey I, a 90-foot power catamaran that was recently Smart Voyager-certified. Metropolitan Touring (www.metropolitantouring.com), a major player in Ecuador’s tourism industry, has unveiled half-week expeditions for 2011 onboard the Isabela II, a 40-passenger yacht that was refurbished to offer such amenities as sea kayaks, wet suits and snorkel gear, even a Wi-Fi connection.
Land accommodations include the Finch Bay Eco Hotel (www.finchbayhotel.com), a beachfront property on Santa Cruz Island that was nominated by the World Travel Awards in 2010 in two categories: Ecuador’s Leading Resort and South America’s Leading Green Hotel.
The Coast:Ecuador’s Pacific coastline is dotted with quaint fishing villages, wide beaches and interesting activities. The region’s transportation, commercial and cultural hub is Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador. Because of the high altitude of Quito’s airport, Guayaquil is frequently the first stop for international arrivals. This port city is a bustling metropolis with attractions including Malecon 2000, a waterfront walkway that is home to entertainment, public works of art and lovely views. Also noteworthy is Centennial Park, the largest downtown green space, which is marked by monuments that commemorate Ecuadorian independence.
Elsewhere on the coast is the province of Esmeraldas, a lush region that is popular with tourists, thanks in part to the Majagual Forest, a reserve that is home to the tallest mangroves in the world.
The Andes Highlands: One of Ecuador’s best-known regions for tourism, the picturesque Andes region is a land of sweeping mountains and tranquil valleys, with an array of cultural attractions, historic sites and adventurous activities.
The primary gateway to the highlands is Quito, home to a restored historic downtown that is lined with colonial-era architecture. The city boasts an ever-increasing array of museums and cultural institutions, including the Museum of Colonial Art, which houses works from the 16th to the 19th centuries; the newMuseo de Acuarela y Dibujo (“Museum of Watercolor and Drawings”); and Casa del Alabado, a new museum of pre-Colombian artifacts. Other important sites include the Metropolitan Cathedral, which has a foundation dating back to the late 16th century; the Church of La Compania de Jesus, which dates back to 1766; and the massive Church of San Francisco, which is perhaps the city’s most imposing historic site.
Visitors to Quito in recent years have benefited from an increased number of hotel choices. In the works is Casona de San Miguel (www.metropolitantouring.com), a 31-room boutique property owned by Metropolitan Touring that will open in 2011 in a landmark building in the historic center. Other new properties include Nu House (www.nuhousehotels.com) and Le Parc (www.leparc.com.ec), both of which are stylish boutique properties, and a Holiday Inn Express (www.hiexpress.com), which offers plenty of amenities and refreshing décor in a central location.
Quito is slated to debut a new airport by 2012. The facility, located outside the city limits, is expected to greatly increase the city’s current capacity. This will most likely bode well for such companies such as LAN (www.lan.com), the largest airline group in South America.
Quito may be the hub for visitors in the Andes Highlands, but there is much to do throughout the region. Other attractions include Cotopaxi National Park, a 90,000-acre ecological sanctuarythat is centered on Cotopaxi Volcano, one of the highest active volcanoes in the world.
One of the most popular activities is actually being excluded from tour itineraries: The Devil’s Nose Railway — a dramatic zigzag rail line that cuts through rock on an old route between Quito and Guayaquil, has been closed since March 2010 for repairs, and a reopening date has not been announced.
But there are other possibilities, including the Flower Trail, which was created by the nation’s Ministry of Tourism with support from Expoflores (the Ecuadorian Flower Exporters Association), the Quito Visitors Bureau and the Inter-American Development Bank. This tourism route, set along the impressive Avenue of the Volcanoes (a route that leads south from Quito past several of the country’s largest volcanoes), gives visitors the chance to see where the nation’s best-selling flowers grow. The Flower Trail also allows travelers to experience a bit of Ecuador’s rural life while enjoying such activities as trekking, camping, mountain biking and horseback riding. Voyagers can easily combine this trip with a visit to Cuenca, Ecuador’s third-largest city, which has a historic downtown that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Amazon: Ask the average traveler to picture the Amazon, and many will mention Brazil first. But Ecuador has its own wide swath of lush green jungle, offering such activities as birding, hiking and kayaking, to name a few. Visitors can explore Sangay National Park, home to an active volcano; Podocarpus National Park, which has more than 100 lakes, plus beautiful streams and waterfalls; and Yasuni National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve that is home to Huaorani and Quichua cultures, as well as a wide array of wildlife.
And just because you’re in the Amazon doesn’t mean you’ll lack comfortable places to stay. Weary adventurers will find plenty of opportunities to rest and rejuvenate at such lovely jungle inns as the Sacha Lodge (www.sachalodge.com), which is set on a 5,000-acre nature reserve and offers an all-inclusive program; and Sani Lodge (www.sanilodge.com), which is set on a black-water lagoon.
For more information, visit www.ecuador.travel.--By Mark Chesnut