Straddling the equator after which it is named, Ecuador is unspoilt yet accessible - and, more than any other country in the region, can justify a claim as South America in microcosm. Although Ecuador’s greatest lure is still the Galapagos Islands, increasingly an awareness is growing for the mainland: delightful market towns, Amazon jungle lodges, scenic train journeys, or a few days spent in one of Ecuador’s ancient network of haciendas. Many of the properties are working farms, the majority are close to Quito, and offer a genuine insight into the rural way of life as well as being the perfect way to unwind either after or before a long flight
Scenically situated in a narrow valley overlooked by snow-capped volcanoes, Quito is a fascinating blend of colonial, Indian and Inca influences, where the rarefied Andean air may easily leave the newcomer breathless. The ‘old city’ in particular, has preserved much of its character with fine examples of architecture and sculpture. There is much to see and do in and around the immediate vicinity of Quito, including a range of day trips such as white water rafting and climbing. View Ecuador in a larger map
Located 600 miles off the mainland, the Galapagos Islands, a living laboratory of evolution, are home to some of the world’s most unique wildlife. Over thousands of years, both animals and plants have adapted themselves to the prevailing conditions - and in this environment, endemic species of the islands have developed no fear of mankind. A variety of boats from small yachts to luxury ships provide cruises with an average duration of 7 nights, though shorter and longer tours are possible. Travelling between the islands is generally at night - the daily format adopts a kind of ‘game drive’ timetable with early morning and late afternoon shore excursions, leaving midday free for a siesta - or snorkelling with sea-lions.
Four rivers wind through and around Cuenca, a city founded by the Spanish in 1557 and which was constructed on the site of existing settlements occupied by both Canari Indians and Incas. The village of Chordeleg produces excellent gold and silver jewellery, elsewhere hand made shawls and panama hats are good buys. To the south, Podocarpus National Park is a haven for ornithologists, set amid spectacular trekking country. Two hours north of Cuenca and just off the Pan-American Highway is Ingapirca, Ecuador’s most notable Inca site.
Cotopaxi National Park
In the heart of Ecuador, the Cotopaxi National Park is dominated by the tallest active volcano in the world at 5,897 metres. The park itself is characterised by a barren volcanic landscape and with ten summits over 5,000 metres, it is little wonder that Ecuador’s mountains are one of its greatest attractions. The paramo, or highland plain, surrounding the peak is the natural habitat of the Andean condor as well as home to many other endemic species. On the perimeter of the park and almost in the shadow of Cotopaxi itself are Hacienda’s La Cienega and San Agustin de Callo, ideal bases from which to explore the area.
An abundance of birdlife, including hummingbirds, macaws and toucans may be spotted in Ecuador’s Oriente region which extends from the Eastern Andes to the Peruvian border. The terrain is a primeval world of virgin forest, exotic flora and fauna in an area still mainly inhabited by Indians. On arrival in Coca or Lago Agrio, accommodation is in simple but comfortable jungle lodges and the level of guiding is outstanding.