Ecuador is an enchanting country full of beautiful natural wonders that extend far beyond the Galapagos Islands, to colonial cities with a rich cultural heritage and friendly people who will make you feel welcome.
I love Latin America in general and have had the opportunity to visit several countries already but, I wanted to visit Ecuador and the Galapagos as they were still on my bucket list.
The Galapagos Islands are obviously the country’s prime attraction but I also wanted to explore Ecuador and see what else it had to offer, so I allowed myself an extra few days to visit the mainland and I am glad I did. The flights to Galapagos arrive into either Guayaquil or the capital, Quito so it is easy to include a tour of the country before you jet off to Baltra or San Cristobal islands.
I land in Quito early in the morning and have the whole day to explore the city. As Ecuador’s capital it is one of the major cities but it’s bigger than I imagined, with more than 2.5 million people. But what draws visitors here is the historical centre’s well preserved colonial heritage.
Picturesque plazas, cobbled streets, beautiful 17th century facades and a myriad of art-filled churches from the 16th and 17th centuries. I am lucky enough to be accompanied to the Cathedral by one of its curators, so we are handed a key to go up to the cupola through a set of very steep and narrow stairs. From the exterior we have amazingly clear views of the city and of the volcanoes surrounding it.
My hotel is situated in the Mariscal district so when I head back in the evening I can choose from plenty of local restaurants and bars. In the last few years the artisanal beer industry has boomed in Ecuador and so Quito is full of places where you can taste some very good beer. If you are a beer lover like me you will definitely find something to enjoy!
The following morning I meet with Giovanny, who will be my guide and driver for the tour in the Avenue of Volcanoes. This is one of the country’s most famous sites and only 1.5 hours from Quito is Cotopaxi volcano.
Before the entrance to the park we meet with Oscar, one of the park’s local guides and continue on in the car up to the information centre where you can stop for refreshments and for information on Cotopaxi National Park and all of Ecuador’s active volcanoes.
After a quick stop we reach Limpiopungo lagoon at a height of almost 4,000m above sea level – and a beautiful landscape opens before our eyes. Cotopaxi volcano towers before us and the scenery of the beautiful valley with other volcanoes like Sincholagua and Ruminahui, emerges from the landscape like beautiful marble statues. The guide tells me that in Quechua ‘Coto’ means neck and ‘Paxi’ moon and that this mountain has been worshiped by local people for centuries.
If you carry on with the car from here you can reach the refugio at 4,500m from where you can do a hike that will take you another 300 metres higher. I also learn from Oscar that you can do a Cotopaxi climb by night up to the crater (only with a licensed guide and if the government permits depending on the volcano’s current activity). Unfortunately the weather on this day doesn’t permit it so we do a small hike around the lagoon and head back and towards our next destination, Baños.
On the way we stop for lunch at Hacienda La Cienega, one of the oldest haciendas in the country. The building and grounds are truly impressive and full of history. You can stay overnight here as it is also a hotel with truly spectacular rooms that are full of character. We are greeted by the manager who tells us the rich history of the house and we enjoy a delicious lunch and then we set off for the couple of hours drive to reach Ecuador’s adventure capital.
Baños is a small town and the gateway to the Amazon if you are heading there by land, with beautiful landscapes and yet another volcano, the Tungurahua, towering over the valley. It first became famous for its thermal hot springs but nowadays is a must destination for outdoors lovers of all ages. You can see waterfalls, hike through forests, bike tours and if you enjoy extreme sports you can choose from zip lining, pendulum jumping, water rafting and many more.
As I am not an adrenaline seeker, I opt for the cable car through the valley and the hike to the most famous waterfall of all, the Pailón del Diablo, a truly stunning waterfall with a deafening roar coming from the water falling on the rocks. The walk to get to it is all downhill so just remember that the journey back will all be uphill - but it is well worth it! I spend the night in town and it is buzzing, full of bars, restaurants and quite touristy, but nonetheless with a charm of its own.
The following morning we head further south towards Riobamba, about 80 km away. It is the capital of the Chimborazo region that takes its name from the highest volcano in Ecuador. The original city was completely destroyed by an earthquake at the end of the 18th century so the Riobamba of today is the rebuilt city.
It is a charming city even if it gets mixed reviews by travellers. There is a rich mix of cultures and a strong indigenous presence here. We have a late lunch at the local market as I need to try the famous hornado, a whole pig cooked for about 8 hours by lovely ladies who cook it at home and then come to the market to sell it.
There are several stalls selling hornado so as soon as we walk into the market they start yelling at us to buy it from them and they offer us pieces to try. The guide tells me that whoever you accept this sample from, you have to buy from. I very much enjoy this experience as it is a testament to truly local life and culture.
As we have lunch quite late, we walk around the city a little and then Giovanny drives me to my hotel for the evening. I spend the night in a beautiful hacienda about 20 minutes into the outskirts of Riobamba with the Chimborazo volcano watching over my very good night's sleep.
The following morning we leave Riobamba and head straight for Cuenca. However, if you have more time, I advise you to take the Devil’s Nose train in the morning and visit the Ingapirca Inca ruins that are between the two cities.
I have really been looking forward to visiting Cuenca, so I don’t mind going there directly and the city did not disappoint. It’s such a charming place; steeped in its culture and tradition and the historical centre could easily outclass that of Quito. Beautiful and elegant plazas, ornate churches, friendly people and the many craft markets that the city is famous for.
I am lucky enough to be here for the night of a very important religious celebration, the Corpus Christi. It looks like the whole town is in Parque Calderon, the main plaza! There are more than one hundred stalls selling candy and sweets and they parade several firework ‘castles’. These are 30- to 40-foot bamboo towers which are rigged with fireworks. On this night, there are four castles, each sponsored by a church, civic organization or family. I am told this is a week-long celebration and an important event in the city’s calendar. Its lots of fun and great to see the whole city come together in the celebration.
After a good night’s sleep in another beautiful hacienda-style B&B we set off for the last leg of my trip, to Guayaquil. This journey is one of the longest at around 3 and a half hours but it is well worth it as we go through some stunning scenery especially in the first couple of hours.
As we leave the city behind us, we drive towards the Caja National Park where we reach a maximum altitude of around 4,200 m. and the scenery is breath taking. Giovanny tells me that this is a very popular spot for those who love trekking and I can see why. As we start descending, beautiful valleys open out before us and we drive for about an hour on a road that passes through a cloud forest. It is quite difficult at times to see the road as the clouds can be quite thick in areas but it is nonetheless stunning and we reach Guayaquil early afternoon.
The city of Guayaquil is an important port and is considered the gateway to Galapagos as most flights to the islands depart and arrive here. It is the commercial heart of the country and I can feel this in the city’s vibrancy and architectural landscape. In the evening I enjoy walking on the Malecon, the riverside walk, up to La Perla, the city’s own observation wheel. Before going to bed I have time to take a walk through the Las Peñas neighbourhood, the city’s oldest part, characterised by houses in myriads of colours, cobbled streets and a bohemian ambience.
The following morning I have to leave for the airport as it’s the end of my trip that began in Galapagos and finished in the country. I was worried that after the islands nothing in Ecuador would be as enchanting and unforgettable. How wrong was I? In a different way, Ecuador is as intoxicating and exhilarating. It offers plenty of opportunities to keep travellers of all ages and interests charmed by the beauty of its cities, natural wonders and people. There is so much you can see and do and my only regret is not having had enough time.
I would recommend anyone to add a land itinerary of at least 7 nights on to a visit to Galapagos, to have enough time to visit the places I saw but at a more relaxed pace. It would be a real shame to travel all the way to the Galapagos Islands and simply fly over this beautiful country. No matter what your budget, age or interests, Ecuador appeals to all and you will always find a smiling face greeting you. Learning some basic Spanish is a good idea too as it can help in the most remote places but apart from this, all you need is a spirit of adventure, a good camera and a good tour operator like Travel Nation who can help plan your trip and advise you in organising your dream holiday to Ecuador.
If you’d like to visit the places I’ve experienced, we can put together a trip to Ecuador that includes Cotopaxi volcano, the colonial cities, a visit to the hot springs and even a stay in a lodge in the cloud forest! We’ll tailor make your trip to suit your style and budget, from flights (direct or multi-stop) and transfers to accommodation a tours. To start planning – just call us on +44 1273320580 or request a quote by email.