If you only have two to three weeks for your holiday, go to Ecuador. This one has it all: Andean highlands, cloud forests and Pacific coast. All combined in a compact package, with relatively short distances. Ready to roll?
I love to call Ecuadorians ‘the Swiss from Latin America’. They are a bit shy, timid, and slightly boring. But also extremely friendly and relaxed.
But that’s the mountain peoples from the Andes. Ecuador also has an other halve. The coast is a different beast, with jungle landscapes and lush beaches. Plus the ugly but vibrant economic capital Guayaquil.
Maybe that shyness is the reason most tourists overlook Ecuador when planning a trip. Being tucked in between Colombia and Peru isn’t easy. But this country has a lot going for it. Short distances, relatively low prices, friendly people and an incredible diversity in nature. As said, it’s my ultimate destination when you are limited in time.
- Quito: the capital’s scenery is jaw-dropping, tucked in between Andean mountain tops. It is the less metropolitan little brother of Medellin in Colombia. It’s also colder, at 2’900 metres, and therefore surrounded by peaks like Rucu Pichincha that rise to almost 5’000 metres. It is much more relaxed than Guayaquil, and has a richer cultural life with the amazing Guayasamin museum as a highlight. Quito is one of the two ports of entry if you travel by plane
- Cotopaxi: a daytrip from Quito, this is one of the highest Andean summits in the country. Alternatively you can sleep in or close to the national park, though it’s rather expensive. Hiking to around 5’860 metres also isn’t the easiest of walks
- Quilotoa Lake: this one is also known as the Quilotoa Loop, although you will not hike the entire loop. Actually, you can also take a direct bus from Latacunga or a car to go straight to this beautiful volcanic lake. But the reward is much greater when you make it into a three-day hike, visiting mountain villages and sleeping there along the way
- Banos: the action and adventure capital of Ecuador. The location close to volcanoes is spectacular. The village itself is very touristy, with plenty of activities (ziplining, rafting) I personally don’t like. But there are also several trails around town, and biking to Mera or beyond to Puya into the Amazon along the Ruta de las Cascadas (Waterfall route) is a strenuous but rewarding experience not to be missed
- located a bit above Cuenca, the Parque Nacional Sangay has several highlights. The most famous (and muddy and therefore difficult) one is the trek to the mountain lake of El Altar: Use Riobamba as a base if you want to explore these surroundings
- Nariz del Diablo: one of the most famous train rides in the world, high up in the Andes. It only takes three hours up and down, but is apparently worth the detour and the money. Didn’t visit it myself because it was tricky to reach with just public transport
- Cuenca: popular amongst expats, this city full of colonial architecture is colder than you might expect. It’s a gentle town to walk around for 1 or 2 days and do some museums and miradors (lookouts) along the way. But above all it’s a perfect base for visiting Cajas national park
- Cajas national park: paramo are dry Andean highlands. The Toreadore area of Cajas national park is a perfect example of that. This area is at a height of around 4’000 metres, one hour by bus from Cuenca on the way to Guayaquil, and it feels like you landed on a different planet. There are also other areas of Cajas with different landscapes, and it’s worth it to pay them a visit as well
- if you want to travel further south from Cuenca, you will end up in Vilcabamba. You are probably coming from Peru or want to travel there. And why would you stop in Vilcabamba? Because from there you can explore the fabulous Podocarpus national park, which is more off-the-beaten-track even than Cajas
- Guayaquil: the beating Latin heart of Ecuador, this place is dirty, chaotic, ugly but still exciting. Why? Because there are real jewels in between the urban jungle this place has grown into. There are the waterside parks (Malecon 2000 and the Malecon del Salado), the hipster food court / street art center of Guayarte, beautiful Isla Santay in front of the city, and the colorful barrio of Las Penas and the lighthouse on top of it. Oh, and there are 1 or 2 good museums, an insane cemetery and the biggest football stadium of Ecuador for the local pride Barcelona F.C.
- Pacific coast: this one is full of beautiful beaches and smaller and bigger relaxed cities. Montanita is a party capital, Ayampe a relaxed surfer town. Manabi is a bigger town more north with great beaches, Canoa is a quieter and smaller surfer paradise, and even further north is amongst others Mompiche. But north of Manta it gets more complicated to travel to/from Quito and Guayaquil
- Mindo: ever since visiting Santa Elena in Costa Rica I fell in love with cloud forests. These are mysterious, always-humid places brimming with biodiversity. Mindo is the Ecuadorian highlight of this species. Located in a steep valley 2,5 hours driving from Quito, it is catered a bit more for tourists and has some great walks. Don’t forget to visit the butterfly farms and the orchid garden as well, and sample the great Ecuadorian food here on display
- a great daytrip from Quito is Papallacta. The place is especially famous for thermal baths, something you can also do by the way in Banos
- Galapagos islands: yes, the big one. But also an expensive and complicated visit. You need to book an organized tour, planes usually leave from Guayaquil to make the two-hour journey
The Ecuadorian kitchen is much richer than you would think. That’s because of the stunning biodiversity in the country, which is mirrored in the cuisine. Every region is different, with the Manabi region for example offering excellent dishes with peanut sauce. Yummie indeed.
There is lots of fish, and patacones (hard-fried plantains) are standard fare as well. In most tourist destinations you can also expect the entire scale of international kitchen
The airports of entry are usually Guayaquil or Quito, though Cuenca also has a proper airport. Over land you must take the Rumichaca border on the Colombian side (the other border crossings are considered too dangerous). On the Peruvian side are more options: in Namballe (when you come from Loja and Vilcabamba), Macara and El Alamor. Close to the Pacific coast is a fourth crossing called Huaquillas.
Inside the country, the easiest and quickest and cheapest way is to get around by bus. Renting a car is possible but relatively expensive and probably only useful to get to really remote places. Bus coach quality varies from decent to excellent. Tickets can usually be bought at the terminals, but one can hop on and off as well along the journey and pay to the adjudante (bus driver’s assistant).
Flying within the country is also an option as it is not too expensive and even smaller cities have smaller airports catering for smaller planes.
- Weather: depends greatly on whether you are in the mountains or at the beach of course. The Andes is colder at night than you might think, so come prepared. Quito is pleasant but still requires a jacket at night. Differences between the seasons mainly concentrate on rain and sunshine. Autumn and winter in the mountains tend to be more humid and windy, spring is more pleasant. On the coast you can actually expect lots of clouds and rain as well from May until November. Outside that period it is sunny and hot. Please be aware these are just rules of thumb, check before booking!
- Safety: Ecuador is generally safe outside of the big cities. Even Quito and Guayaquil feel pretty comfortable, except in the historic centres. These get deserted at night and therefore more dangerous, so don’t walk alone. During the day these are playgrounds for pickpockets. Public transport also needs extra vigilance, keep your valuables close to you and not visible if possible (and insist on taking your backpack into the bus seat). The mountains are generally safe, just ask locals because occacionally hikers are still targeted for robberies. Wild dogs can be a nuisance as well during hikes, so take a stick or a rock with you and threaten to throw at them when in trouble.
- Gay travel: the big cities have active gay communities, especially in Quito. Guayaquil has a party-eager scene as it is on the warmer Pacific side, Montanita is also a popular place to let go
- money: payments are in US dollars. Expect to pay in cash outside of the big cities
And as a teaser, here is a documentary about the train trip from Guayaquil to Quito.