Travel in South America is often dominated by the big players: your Brazils, Argentinas, Perus and Chiles. But little Ecuador, sandwiched between the white caps of the Pacific and the humid lowlands of the Amazon basin, is the equal of any of them.
What it lacks in bucket list-ticking icons, it makes up for in subtle, compact beauty. From the volcanic heights of Cotopaxi to the Class V rapids of the Oriente, it all comes with the genuine thrill of discovering something the tourist trail has missed: your own personal slice of South American bliss. So what exactly makes Ecuador so Ecuadorable? Read on to find out.
1. You can get high
Figuratively speaking. It may not be the Himalayas or the Rocky Mountains, but Ecuador’s capital city, Quito, is the second highest world capital at a cool 9,350 feet. Rising straight out of the city is Pichincha, an active volcano that last erupted in 1999. Take a cable car to the top for some rare air at over 15,000 feet.
Farther afield are the volcanoes Cotopaxi, Chimborazo, and Cayambe (all over 18,000 feet), with plenty of invigorating summit climbs for experienced mountaineers. Of course if you don’t have a head for heights, there’s plenty of sea level adventure to be had as well.
2. Three words: blue footed booby
The Galapagos Islands are known throughout the world, but it’s safe to assume most of the world doesn’t know they’re actually part of continental Ecuador. As well as being the world’s premier marine reserve and the country’s most famous attraction, they’re also home to half the blue footed booby breeding pairs on earth.
In addition to these web-footed wonders, the Galapagos is a nature lover’s playground, with giant tortoises, sea lions, and the only marine iguanas anywhere on the planet. A 26 year-old Charles Darwin wrote in the early 1800s that the Galapagos Islands struck him with wonder. When you get there, you’ll understand why.
3. It’s tourist friendly
Let’s be honest, some South American countries get a bad rap for their safety record, especially in big cities, where street smarts and common sense are a traveller’s best friend. But overall, Ecuadorian cities are known to be friendlier and safer than most of the continent, much more so than Rio or Sao Paulo.
Quito, Otavalo and Cotopaxi National Park have their own dedicated tourist police, whose job is basically to make sure you have a fun and safe time in their country. And after a revamp in 2009, the national police are all university educated (an attempt to stamp out corruption, or at least make it a better class of corruption). It seems to be working, as Ecuador is often ranked one of the safest countries to visit in South America.
4. Clouds with a silver lining
Cloud forests sound like something out of a fantasy novel, but Ecuador actually has some of the finest in the world. Imagine rainforests at a higher altitude, where humidity gives way to cooler air and clouds cover the foliage in a soft mist, pretty much year round. Instead of the sluggish, silt-laden rivers you find in the Amazon basin, Andean cloud forests have clear, fast moving streams.
The Mindo forests in the north of the country are a naturalist’s paradise. The moist air from the Pacific hits the cool slopes of the Andes, and has fostered a staggering amount of natural diversity: 500 different species of bird, thousands of rare orchids and bromeliads, hummingbirds, tanagers, toucans and more frog species than almost anywhere else on earth. Amazon who?
5. Adventure is out there
Most people think of Chile as the capital of South American adventure, but Ecuador’s compact diversity and jagged alpine landscapes make it a serious contender for the continent’s adrenalin capital. For surfers, the rolling swells and white breaks off Ecuador’s Pacific coast are some of the best you’ll find. Head to Playas for the famous ‘el Pelado’ break, or the popular waters off Montanita for a challenging ride.
If surfing isn’t your speed, there’s always Class V white water rapids flowing down from the Andes in the Oriente region. Throughout the Andes you’ll find horseback riding, mountain biking and of course volcano trekking to keep you busy. The hike to the gorgeous Cuicocha crater lake just outside Quito is a particular favourite.
Want to check out Ecuador for yourself? We’ve got a range of small group adventures to suit every travel style and budget.
Image c/o Maurizio Constanzo, Flickr