Dotted with farming communities, llamas, crater lakes and ravines, this is a particularly scenic yet little-visited region. Public transport is minimal, but multi-day hikes from village to village – known as the "Quilotoa Loop" – and horseback rides offer a glimpse into little-seen Ecuadorian life – culminating at the exquisite Quilotoa Lake in a 3,900m high volcanic crater. Kayak across, or ride a mule around the rim.
Though not celebrated as other Latin styles, Ecuador’s cultural patchwork has created its own distinctive sounds, each one the perfect soundtrack to its specific region. From the rhythm-heavy, African-influenced bomba and marimba of the northern coast, to the mournful Andean flute and guitar and the vocal harmonies of the música nacional, pick up some cheap CDs during your Ecuador vacation and relive the experience back home.
Ecuador’s nature and wildlife draw visitors from across the globe. However, its many cultures – including gaudily dressed Quichua highlanders, the little-visited, coastal Afroecuadorians and the many Amazonian tribes, with their shamans and fascinating knowledge of the rainforest – should not be overlooked. Use local guides, try a homestay, sample local food or join a cultural workshop for a thoroughly Ecuadorian vacation adventure.
Peru takes all the credit for the Incas’ legacy, but their empire stretched as far as Quito, and southern Ecuador has its fair share of Inca roads and ruins. The most impressive is Ingapirca, whose Temple of the Sun was built using stones carved so perfectly they require no mortar. During the solstices, the sun shines through a doorway at the top of the temple.
Few places on earth have contributed as much to our understanding of the natural world as the Galápagos. A lack of large predators on this volcanic archipelago means the wildlife is fearless, and in this remotest of settings you can swim with sea lions, watch sea iguanas blow salt from their noses and see the famous finches, whose unique beaks revealed the secrets of evolution to Charles Darwin.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of South America’s best-preserved colonial cities. Founded by the Spanish in 1557, Cuenca had already been a settlement for 1,000 years – first for the Cañari and then the Incas. Today, Cuenca’s cobblestoned streets, whitewashed churches, mild climate and fascinating museums are a draw for tourists and retired expats.
As one of the world’s 17 biodiversity hotspots, Ecuador has a phenomenal variety of habitats – and the wildlife to match. From the vicuñas and condors of the high Andes and the birdlife of the cloud forests, to the howler monkeys, sloths and anacondas of the Amazon, the whales of the coast and the sea lions, iguanas and tortoises of the Galápagos, wildlife fans will be hopping with excitement during their Ecuador vacation.
Ecuador’s “spine” is a chain of volcanoes – you’llnever be far from a smoking crater or a rugged snow-capped peak during your Ecuador vacation. Scramble up Rucu Pichincha for unrivalled views of Quito, then soak your aching legs in one of the country’s many natural thermal baths. Mountain bike down Cotopaxi’s slopes, or simply enjoy the dramatic views – while sipping juice chilled with glacial ice.
The violent reputation of Ecuador’s largest city has mellowed over the past decade, as renovation projects have brightened up the promenade – the flashy Malecón 2000 – and pretty, pastel-coloured Cerro Santa Ana, with its cute cafes and vistas. But there’s little else to see, straying from these areas is ill advised, and the views reveal the slums across the murky water, facing back onto the selective wealth of the city.
One of the largest and most famous markets in South America, you’ll find enough crafts to stuff a hundred suitcases in Otavalo. You’ll also find hundreds of other tourists. For a more authentic market experience, try the Saturday morning animal market, or visit the surrounding villages, where many of the weavers practise their crafts on traditional looms. Salasaca, Saquisilí and Latacunga also have notable markets.
This parched rock, 20km from Puerto Lopez, is covered in scratchy loofah bushes, blue-footed boobies and red-chested frigate birds. It’s an unusual daytrip, especially in June-September when there’s a chance of spotting migrating whales during the boat ride. However, don’t believe those who sell this island as an alternative to the Galápagos – you’ll be sorely disappointed.
The “Middle of the World” is a reference to the equator. Unfortunately, the monument built to mark it is 240m south of the actual line – so head to the nearby Intiñan Solar Museum for the real equator. Reaching the famed spot ends up being something of an anticlimax – and you’ll have to decide for yourself whether or not the “scientific” experiments involving plugholes and balancing eggs are true...