I am willing to bet you have heard of Ecuador but are more familiar with the Galapagos Islands – which are actually a part of Ecuador. And whether or not my assumption is correct I am also willing to bet that you will be pleasantly surprised to find out all there is to see and do within Ecuador before flying over to the Galapagos Islands – both of which are quite the exotic destinations.
In order to introduce you to them I invited Diego Escobar – one of my partners in South America – from Condor Travel – to one of my weekly video chats to share the beauty of both. And once you have discovered all of what makes them amazing destinations – Diego and I will work together to get you those experiences that you just can’t find on the Internet – which is why so I love working with Diego and his team because they really do help me create these amazing memories for all of you.
Let’s get right to it, shall we?
Country Background: Ecuador is a relatively small country that consists of four clear regions – The Amazon Rainforest the Andes Mountains, the Pacific Coast and the Galapagos Islands – which are located about 600 miles away from the mainland. Fun Fact: It is said that Ecuador is a summary of Latin America because you have a little bit of everything in just this one small territory.
Located at the equator – and named Ecuador because of the equator line that crosses the country – it truly is at the center of the earth. Diego started the chat with a great quote by explorer Alexander von Humboldt who visited Ecuador in the 18th century and had this to say: “When you travel Ecuador, from the high snowcapped mountains to the Amazon rainforest, it is like you’re traveling from Argentina to Canada in terms of the variety of environments and landscapes that you can find.”
And that indeed is true as here you will the Cotopaxi Volcano which is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world as well as so many dramatic landscapes. For instance, there is the Amazon rainforest – and even though Ecuador is home to just a small part of it – around 5% – it’s one of the most accessible ones. Then there are the magnificent Andes Mountains which are considered the backbone of Ecuador. And of course, the Pacific Coast with its incredible beaches and finally – the Galapagos Islands that are simply the cherry on top of it all. It truly is a natural paradise brought to you by mother earth herself. As a matter a fact – it also happens to be the most biodiverse country in the world per square kilometer – so you can expect to find many species of reptiles, birds, insects, mammals and more – giving you wilderness and wildlife in one adventure!
Getting There: Most visitors typically fly into Quito where there is an international airport -although there is also another international airport in Guayaquil on the Pacific Coast. If you are coming from the US – say from Miami or Atlanta it is about a four-hour flight and from Houston it is about a six-hour flight. So, it really is quite close and once you are there you have the chance to change the environment you are in quite easily – as each different region is just a 25-minute flight from each other. As Diego said – you can have breakfast in the Amazon rainforest, lunch in the Andes Mountains and dinner on the Pacific Coast!
One of the things that I like to do when the itinerary we are planning are the Galapagos Islands is to give you a pre- and post-night in Quito so you can so you can discover this amazing city the capital of Ecuador. (Note: the Galapagos Islands are a two-hour flight form Quito.)
Destinations: Read on to see what each region of the country can offer!
Quito: The city of Quito is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was declared as such in 1978 thanks to having one of the largest and best-preserved historical centers in all of Latin America – as well as tons of history – including museums and churches and amazing colonial art as well baroque as neoclassical style.
Quito is actually a very long city but it’s also easy to visit and it’s really well divided between the modern part and the older part. There are great hotel options in the modern part as well as restaurants – one of the best being Terra which is fusion restaurant and that showcases all of the regions of Ecuador in their dishes. Also available here – thanks to local beer producers – is beer tasting! And something that would be my favorite to do? Chocolate tasting! Everybody loves chocolate and chocolate is a must when you visit Ecuador as they have the best cocoa bean variety – Arriba – in fact – some of the highest quality beans in the world come from here. Diego let us in on the fact that Swiss chocolate is made with Arriba beans and Ecuador is producing the best bars that you can find in the world featuring really nice mixtures such as chocolate with lemongrass.
The Cloud Forest: Just a two-hour drive from Quito – and a total change in environment – this is one of the most intriguing things you will ever see – and it is off the beaten path so hello social distancing! So, it’s all about the outdoors here and three days is the suggested length of stay in this area. For my bird watching peeps – this is the perfect spot for you. You can find up to 600 species of birds here to spy on and plenty of biodiversity. There are exotic bird watching excursions through the forest where you not only check out the birds – but the waterfalls as well. Per Diego if you are an avid bird watcher you would want to visit the Cloud Forest for at least at least three days to see the amazing diversity of the birds and with a good local guide you would be able to see a good hundred or so at least. For a different point of view, you can hop on the Dragon Fly and take a ride on this super cool open cable car for amazing views of the flora and fauna. Or you can choose to pedal high above the forest canopy on a Sky Bike where you will be 196 feet above the ground checking out the different species and vegetation at your own pace.
As for accommodations we discussed a fer options. One is Mashpi – which is a really modern and a luxury property and El Monte Sustainable Lodge which is a more traditional eco lodge. There is also another property where you can stay in a treehouse in the jungle!
Otavalo: Otavalo is a small town in the Andes located two hours north of Quito. The highlight here is the culture as the residents here are indigenous people who are also called Otavalos and are very happy to share their culture with the visitors. Here you will find one of the largest indigenous markets in South America – the colorful Otavalo Market – full of textiles and handicrafts. Bonus – Condor Travel offers have an experience called May I Introduce You where they will take you directly to the workshops of the artisans who are producing the textiles and handicrafts giving you a direct experience and contact with them.
This area is also known for its ecological reserves and is famous for its lakes as well. There are some activities to do on the water – per Diego – it’s cold – but it’s possible to do so! Otavalo is home to many colonial haciendas and rural casita’s that are famous in Ecuador which you can visit while there to get an idea of the local way of life. And the Condor Project which is another must do which is a trek through a nice park where you will get the opportunity to check out the local birds – of which many are rescues. And for my cheese connoisseurs you can pay a visit to a cheese factory here where the cheese is made by the locals.
And as far as accommodations – the haciendas here have been upgraded so that we have all of the comforts that we’re accustomed as well as all the amenities you would find in a city hotel – but in a more remote area near nature and the local culture. Some of the properties Condor works with in this area are Cusin, Zuleta and Piman and all offer really amazing experiences in terms of services, accommodations and activities.
Cotopaxi: Diego shared that this is one of his favorite places that is not far from Quito – about an hour and a half drive – it is home to Cotopaxi National Park and featuring fabulous views of the mountainous landscape. The recommended stay in this area is three to four days to enjoy all it has to offer. For my hikers they offer daily excursions here to reach the summits and also you may catch a glimpse of the local cowboys known as chagras. If you are here, you will certainly want to visit Cotopaxi Volcano and Diego assures us it’s really easy to get to the mountain refuge as you can get quite close by car and then you just have to hike for one hour or so reach the snow caps making for an amazing experience. There are other things to do here such as the Illinizas Ecological Reserve where you can find waterfalls and rivers to hike by, a train ride to explore the area via rail and the opportunity to mountain bike or horseback ride around the national park.
As for lodging that Condor works with? They include properties such as San Agustin Del Callo, El Porvenir, Santa Ana and Cotopaxi Pungo – some of which are a little bit more rustic – but you also have some luxury options here as well making this a great opportunity so to feel immersed in the area. For instance, Diego tells us that the San Agustin Del Callo is a luxury hacienda built on the rings of the Incas so you can find the actual stones of the Incas in some of the walls. There really are options for everyone – including if you just want to be with your family – there are villa options to stay in and have a private experience. Another option is to do a buyout for you and your entire family because these are smaller properties with a great for social distancing.
Avenue of the Volcanoes: Moving south of Quito this area is amazing because when you are out on the open road you feel surrounded by the mountains and volcanos. This is why explorer Alexander von Humboldt named the area the Avenue of the Volcanoes. Diego recommends scheduling five days for this amazing journey from Quito to Cotopaxi National Park where you will head south and make stops at traditional haciendas and indigenous markets along the way. On this route you will also come across Chimborazo which is the land of the llamas – the highlands of Ecuador features lots of those oh so popular llamas and the communities near Chimborazo are famous for llamas and alpacas and most of the locals work with llamas doing textiles as well. There are also and some famous markets like the Guamote Market that you can visit on certain days. Fun Fact: Chimborazo Mountain – which is the highest mountain in Ecuador, and because of this it is often said that when you come to Ecuador you are closer to the sun. And per Diego they say that if you measure it from the center of the earth that it is the biggest mountain in the world – even bigger than the Everest.
A ride on the Devils Nose train is a must as it famous for being the most difficult train route in the world to build as it zig zagged up and down the mountain – meaning unfortunately several people died during the of the construction of the railway.
At the end of the Avenue of Volcanoes you will reach Cuenca City in the southern part of Ecuador, which is a small, charming town featuring fabulous architecture and nice, small boutique hotels. It’s also in close proximity to El Cajas National Park which is home to many lakes as well as the paramount ecosystem in the region and is a remarkably interesting place to hike. Cuenca is also famous for the Artisan Route where you will witness special techniques to make textiles, jewelry and the famous Panama hat – yup – it’s not made in Panama – it’s made in Ecuador!
The Amazon Rainforest: The portion of the rainforest located in Ecuador is small compared to other countries. But it’s really easy to access. For instance, you can reach the Amazon via car in just about four hours leaving from Quito. And bonus – you can visit some cocoa plantations on the way along The Chocolate Trail where you will have the chance to see the process from the start until it becomes chocolate. As you journey along the Guayusa Trail you’ll learn about the local leaf they call Guayusa which contains a lot of caffeine and is made into what can be likened to an energy drink- a local energy drink that’s all natural 100% natural! They – the local indigenous communities – actually start cooking it early in the morning and you can share it with them if you so choose. Something a bit more adventurous that you can do here is rafting on the Jatun Yako River. This is considered a Level 3 River so it’s really easy for families with children to do as a fun afternoon activity.
As for accommodations – there are several lodges along the Cacao Route that offer great opportunities for honeymoons or even as backdrops for a proposal – and Diego confirmed it is a very romantic place to do both. But don’t worry – there are great family properties available as well so we can find you whatever it is you need.
Yasuni National Park: This national park is located inside the Amazon rainforest – and its the deepest part of the Amazon in Ecuador as well as one of the most biodiverse places on earth. To reach it you would take a 25-minute flight from Quito to the city of Coca in the Amazon. Once you reach that point there are several lodges in the area so to reach them you must take a motorboat for about two hours on the Napo River – which is one of the main tributaries to the Amazon. Depending on the lodge you stay in you will then transfer to a canoe for the final leg of your trip for anywhere from one to two hours. Talk about remote! Talk about social distancing! What an amazing experience!
The Pacific Coast: So, one of my absolute favorites – Anthony Bourdain – visited Ecuador a couple of years ago – a small fishing village called Salango to be exact. I used to watch him all the time and I so loved watching him just explore the world through his love of food. As with me – travel to him was gastronomy related so I love that here is a restaurant we can visit where he too broke bread. And the food on the Pacific Coast is nothing short of amazing and includes fresh fish, lobster and Ecuadorian shrimp – the biggest shrimp that you can find in the world!
Here you can visit both Puerto Lopez and Isla de Plata not far from Salango. In Ecuador they refer to Isla de Plata as the small Galapagos or the Galapagos Chiquita. It’s a small island near the coast where you’ll find wildlife similar to that of the Galapagos. There’s also plenty of activities including water sports like snorkeling and great accommodations such as Hacienda La Danesa which is one of Condor’s favorites to use. It’s also another region – so once again it’s totally different. The climate is warmer and it’s a good chance to just relax – perhaps after returning from the Galápagos Islands where you can stay the night and treat yourself to a massage.
Some of the first settlements in Ecuador were actually are on the Pacific coast and it’s a great place to discover local culture. You also have the humpback whales here as they visit from June to September – so if you visit at this time you have the chance to see the hundreds of humpback whales that are searching for warmer waters.
Also, on the Pacific Coast you have Guayaquil which is a quick flight from Quito. Home to some wonderful hotels such as Hotel Del Parque – featuring a level of service that we’re accustomed to as well as great food. Speaking of food – the local food found in the lowlands in the Pacific Coast are some Diego’s favorite foods found in Ecuador. For example, they have ceviche which he tells us is quite different from the Peruvian or Mexican ceviche. Depending if you’re in the northern part or one of the provinces they change the flavor. It’s made with lemon and local fish and it has more juice than the other ceviche and is simply delicious – and it is typically served with fried green plantain or patacones.
Galapagos Islands: So once again during this chat I’m so excited because Charles Darwin is one of my most favorite scientists of all time – a real mastermind – so it’s pretty cool Darwin visited this place and that it was the inspiration for his theory of evolution! Darwin saw that the finches there had different types of beaks depending on the island he visited and realized it was dependent on the type of food they had whether it be insects or fruit or cactus.
Its a unique place all about wildlife and I love what the islands do in terms of caring for that wildlife. And there are plenty of things to do here with one of the top activities being able to rent your own boat – or even a mini yacht – and go and get up close to the wildlife and nature.
There are different ways of traveling the islands. For example, you have the sea-based option which is cruising through them. This is the classic option to reach the Galapagos Islands and there are many different itineraries available – ranging from four days up to 10 days. But there are also land based options available where you can stay on one island or island hop and then go out daily on different boat excursions. The islands offer various kinds of accommodations from luxury properties to tented camps – with options for everybody.
Culture: Ecuador holds many cultural opportunities – there are almost 30 different ethnic groups found there – and I work with Diego and the team at Condor to ensure that you get to experience remote communities while you are there – allowing you to see how people really live as they did for many, many years – or as I say old country style. You will have the opportunity to learn from them as you join their community and are totally immersed in their indigenous cultures. And for those of you traveling with your home-schooled children what an awesome opportunity for travel as a living classroom! We can even set up some voluntourism for you to do as a family as well.
Safety: Per Diego they are ready to receive visitors again as Ecuador has applied all of the protocols and are in line with the mandates that the World Travel and Tourism Council has passed down – meaning that you can have that peace of mind when you visit this bucket list destination.
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing the CDC recommends travelers avoid all nonessential international travel to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.
So, what do you think? I say let’s add and Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands to your bucket list and get to work curating the perfect itinerary for you! You know I can – and love to – help you with financial travel planning too – so even if we start planning for a year or two out – it will all still be there!
For more details on things to see and do in Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, where to stay, it’s price points and more – contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!