Ecuador

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Take the best of South America, shrink it to about the size of Colorado, and you have Ecuador. Abutting the Pacific Ocean between Colombia and Peru, Ecuador is one of the most geographically and culturally diverse countries on the planet. Locals are fond of boasting that within hours you can zigzag through crisp mountain highlands, admire opulent churches built by conquistadors in Quito, and swim with pink dolphins in the Amazon rain forest.

Ecuador Cities and Regions

Galapagos

This remote and isolated archipelago, famously the inspiration for Charles Darwin’s “Theory of Natural Selection,” lies 620 miles west of the South American continent in the Pacific. Thirteen main islands and six smaller isles, which together embrace some 19,500 square miles of ocean, are home to a unique array of wildlife, such as giant tortoises, sea lions, penguins, and marine iguanas. See our Galapagos Islands Travel Guide

Quito

Perched at about 9,100 feet on the eastern slopes of the active Volcán Pichincha (don’t worry – an alert system warns people when the volcano is about to erupt), Quito is the third highest capital in the world. The city, which lies just 15 miles from the equator, is located in a narrow valley bounded by lush green hills on one side and snowcapped peaks on the other. In recent years, the splendid colonial capital has undergone an extensive restoration – its plazas, churches, and cobblestone streets were scrubbed clean and a series of new restaurants and shops opened.

Andean Highlands

The lofty Andes form a rocky spine of snowcapped volcanoes from north to south. In the Andean highlands, historic haciendas – former estates of the Spanish aristocracy – have been converted into inns with authentic period details, offering visitors a unique glimpse into Ecuador’s past.

Amazon Basin

The Amazon Basin lies to the east of the Andes and is easily accessed from the town of Cocoa, the traditional jumping off point for tours down the Rio Napa, the jungle’s main river. Under its flat, green canopy an astonishing number of species thrive – butterflies, monkeys, sloths, parrots, river dolphins – the list goes on. Tribes such as the Achuar people, who only made contact with the western world in the late ‘60s, also call the area home; today they operate the remote Kapawi Ecolodge & Reserve.

Subtropic Coastal Plains

To the west lies the subtropical coastal plains, which encompass miles of pristine beaches, tiny fishing villages, and resorts that are popular among vacationing Ecuadorians.

Bellavista

Bellavista is one of the largest of Ecuador’s cloud forests, so-called because of the dense fog that crowds the treetops here. The subtropical woodland is located on the slopes of the Andes, between 4,600 and 8,500 feet above sea level. Although the area supports an incredible diversity of life ranging from orchids and bromeliads to spectacled bears and pumas, it is the best known for its birdlife – keep an eye out for species like Tanager finches, Swallow-tailed Nightjars, and White-faced Nunbirds.

Otavalo

Indigenous craftspeople from nearby villages have been converging on Otavalo for more than 4,000 years to sell handiwork, produce, and live animals. Long the social and economic center of the northern highlands, the town, which is a lovely two-hour drive north of Quito, is now a principal tourist stop as well.

Patate

This farming village produces some of the best aguardiente, a potent sugarcane liquor that Ecuador is known for. The southerly, three-and-a-half-hour drive here from Quito, along the Pan American Highway, is easily one of the most spectacular journeys in the world. Dubbed the “Avenue of the Volcanoes” by the celebrated 19th-century explorer Alexander von Humboldt, the passage plows through a valley lined with eight of the country’s highest volcanic peaks.

Baños

Baños is a vivacious resort town named for its steamy mineral spring baths. Dominican missionaries founded Baños in 1553. Today, a different form of evangelizing rules: Billboards advertising myriad hiking, biking, climbing, horseback riding, and jungle tours are omnipresent.

The Valley of Longevity

Hemmed in by green mountains and crisscrossed by two rivers, the valley, which is home to more than 500 bird species and 3,000 plant varieties, is in a state of perpetual spring, with temperatures averaging a balmy 74 degrees. The valley derives its name from Vilcabamba, a sleepy town famous for its extraordinary number of healthy centenarians. Locals chalk up their impressive durability to the idyllic climate, a simple yet hardworking way of life, and the unique mineral content of the water.

Cuenca

Cuenca, the third largest city in Ecuador with 300,000 residents, is situated along the lush banks of the fast-moving Río Tomebamba. When the Spanish took control of the region, they built the city on the site of the Incan city of Tupac, resulting in a mismash of cobblestone streets, Spanish colonial buildings, and Inca ruins. The city is also the jumping off point for the pre-Inca ruins of Ingapirca, which lie 25 miles to the north.

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