Where to Travel in Ecuador?
Thanks to its compact size, travelling around Ecuador is easy and relatively fast, with few places more than a day’s bus ride from the capital. Unlike the attractions found in larger South American countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Chile, Ecuador’s contrasting regions and highlights are within easy reach of each other, allowing for a more flexible approach to route-planning.
The majority of visitors fly in to Quito, whose glorious colonial centre – a maze of narrow streets and exquisite monasteries and churches – demands at least a couple of days to explore. Its modern new town is packed with hotels, restaurants and services that make it a convenient base for excursions. Striking north from Quito, the northern sierra’s green valleys are dappled with glistening lakes and crested by volcanic peaks, and the area is famed for its artesanías, centres of native craftwork, leather goods and woodcarving, all within a short bus ride of each other. Of these, Otavalo is undoubtedly the biggest attraction, thanks to its enormous Saturday market – one of the continent’s most renowned – and flourishing weaving industry. The region also offers plenty of scope for walkers and horseriding enthusiasts, who should consider splashing out on a stay in any of several beautifully converted haciendas. South of Quito, the central sierra is home to the most spectacular of the country’s volcanoes, including the snowcapped cone of Cotopaxi, and Chimborazo, Ecuador’s highest peak at 6268m. Also in this rural region are some of the more exciting markets in the sierra, such as those of the villages of Saquisilí and Zumbahua, and the small town of Guamote. Rewarding off-the-beaten-track destinations include the dazzling crater lake of Laguna Quilotoa, with its remote páramo setting, while more established attractions include the busy little spa town of Baños, framed by soaring green peaks, and the train ride down the Nariz del Diablo (“the Devil’s Nose”) from Riobamba, the most fetching of the central sierra’s cities. In the southern sierra lies the captivating colonial city of Cuenca, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a convenient base for visiting Ingapirca – the country’s only major Inca ruins – and Parque Nacional Cajas, a starkly beautiful wilderness. Further south, the charming city of Loja is a jumping-off point for visits to the Parque Nacional Podocarpus, whose humid lower reaches are particularly sumptuous, and the easy-going mountain village of Vilcabamba, a popular gringo hangout.
The Oriente embodies one of Ecuador’s greatest wildernesses, a thick carpet of tropical rainforest unfurling for almost 300km, which was home only to isolated indigenous groups and the odd Christian mission until the discovery of oil here in the late 1960s. Since then, the region’s infrastructure has developed apace, allowing easier access to the Amazonian jungle than any other Andean country. Two of the country’s largest wild areas – the Reserva Faunística Cuyabeno and the Parque Nacional Yasuní – and a number of private reserves protect substantial forest tracts that have so far survived the incursions of the oil industry and colonists. Jungle lodges, many of them a canoe ride down the Río Napo, make for the most comfortable way of experiencing the thrill of this diverse and exciting habitat, but you can’t do better than staying with an indigenous community for a glimpse into the lives of the jungle’s resident peoples; some of the more isolated destinations can be reached only by light aircraft.