Best Places to Visit in Ecuador


Ranging from the misty jungles and roaring
waterfalls of the Amazon in the east to the salt-sprayed Pacific seaboard in the west,
Ecuador encompasses everything from wondrous cloud forests to brooding volcanos, Andean
peaks and Incan ruins between its borders. Ecuador is one of the most fascinating nations
in South America. Bordered by Colombia, Peru, and the Pacific Ocean and no larger than most
US states, this beautiful country attracts climbers, trekkers, adventurers, and nature
lovers to its lush, ecologically important forests; wildlife watchers to its famous Galápagos
Islands; and sun seekers to its pristine tropical beaches. Here are the best places to visit
in Ecuador. 1.The Galápagos Islands
Since their “discovery” in the 16th century, the Galápagos Islands have intrigued and
inspired visitors from around the globe. Named for the giant tortoises on the islands, this
UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to a unique ecosystem that largely evolved without outside
influences (mainland Ecuador lies some 1,000 kilometers to the east) and offers an exceptional
opportunity for wildlife viewing. The Galápagos Islands remain one of the most active volcanic
regions in the world, and the formation of the islands is still in progress. Most of
the 13 large islands, six smaller islands, and 42 islets that make up the Galápagos
were declared part of the Galápagos National Park in the 1950s, and visiting this fragile
ecosystem can only be undertaken as part of a guided tour to designated visitor sites
(there are, however, one or two areas visitors can go without a guide, including some areas
popular with scuba divers). The main attraction here are its many bird species of which 28
are unique to the islands, including the Galápagos penguin, flightless cormorant, and waved albatross,
and the 13 species of Darwin’s famous finches.  2.Quito Cascading down the rugged slopes of Pichincha
Volcano, the highest official capital city in the world is perhaps the biggest bucket-list
destination in all of Ecuador. In 1978, the center of the city was designated
as one of the first ever UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites, hailed for its lived-in pueblo
homes and gilded Spanish plazas, painted colonial edifices and enchanting cobbled streets, each
trodden by conquistadores and Incan imperialists alike.
On the edges of town, the hillsides of El Panecillo give way to the soaring Andean peaks,
mist-clad or snow-topped depending on the time of year. The most famous attraction in Quito’s historic
center is the San Francisco Church on the Plaza San Francisco. Dating back to the first
half of the 1500s, the church’s white-washed twin towers flank each side of the entrance
to this massive complex. It’s notable for its splendid Baroque interior and the Convent
Museum of San Francisco with its religious paintings, sculptures, carvings, porcelain,
textiles, and handcrafted furniture. Located in the heart of Quito, the Church
of the Society of Jesus, or “La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús,” is perhaps
the best known of the capital’s famed cathedrals. Built in the early 1600s, the church’s design
is considered a premier example of Baroque architecture in the New World. The expansive
use of gold leaf throughout the central nave of the church is breathtaking. 3.Playas and Puerto el Morro The closest beach resort to Guayaquil is the
vibrant Playas, as unpretentious as its name (which means beaches). At weekends in high
season, between Christmas and Easter, it gets packed with people from the city escaping
the heat. The main draw is the long beach and rows of beach cafes offering sumptuous
specialities, such as shrimp ceviche and fried sea bass in garlic. The surfing is good here,
too; but for a break from sun and sand, head a few miles east (half an hour by bus) to
Puerto El Morro, where boat trips wind through the mangroves with opportunities to watch
dolphins in the channel. There is also a small colony of frigatebirds and blue-footed boobies.
4.Cuenca The beautiful city center of Cuenca, officially
known as Santa Ana de los cuatro ríos de Cuenca, is in southern Ecuador and is a delightful
city to explore on foot. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city brims with splendid
colonial influences and architectural treasures spanning 400 years and encompassing both Spanish
and Indian elements. The historic city center is also where many of Cuenca’s key attractions
lie, one of the most important being the Old Cathedral of Cuenca (Iglesia del Sagrario),
built in 1567 from stones taken from nearby Inca buildings. Highlights include its old
organ from 1739, its tower clock from 1751, and the Museum for Religious Art. Also worth
a visit is the massive New Cathedral of Cuenca, built in the 1960s and hard to miss for its
three beautiful blue-tiled domes. The Church of San Sebastian with its mix of Gothic and
Neoclassical elements is also worth seeing. As you wander Cuenca’s pleasant narrow streets,
be sure to spend some time exploring the many squares and parks, including Calderon Park in
the heart of the old town; Plaza San Blas Square, dominated by the Church of San Blas;
and Plaza de San Francisco with its merchants selling textiles and other goods.
5.Cotopaxi and Cajas National Park Two of Ecuador’s most popular national parks,
Cotopaxi and Cajas, are within easy driving distances from the cities of Cuenca and Quito
and make wonderful day trips. Of the two, Cotopaxi National Park (Parque Nacional Cotopaxi),
just 50 kilometers south of Quito, is perhaps the best known thanks to the massive (and
still active) Cotopaxi volcano dominating the area, along with the smaller Rumiñawi
and Sincholagua volcanoes. About 30 kilometers from Cuenca in Ecuador’s stunning highlands, Cajas
National Park (Parque Nacional Cajas) offers a different experience due to its numerous
hills and valleys, making it a perfect place to hike and bike. It’s also a delight for
watersports enthusiasts, particularly kayakers and canoeists, thanks to its more than 270
lagoons and glacier-fed lakes. Finally, Podocarpus National Park, often referred to as the “Botanical
Garden of America,” offers a diverse range of flora and fauna. In the southeast part
of the country, its humid mountain forests are home to more than 4,000 species of plants
and trees (some as tall as 40 meters), including the famous cinchona, Ecuador’s national tree. 6.Nariz del Diablo: The Devil’s Nose
A visit to the stunningly beautiful Nariz del Diablo (“the Devil’s Nose”) should be
on everyone’s bucket list. Whether you’re a train enthusiast or not, this spectacular
part of the Andes mountains near the town of Alausí is best seen aboard one of the
country’s superbly restored railways, part of a network that stretches across the country
to some of its most scenic locations. The 12-kilometer return trip to Nariz del Diablo is
undoubtedly one of the most popular and includes a fantastic sightseeing trip aboard a train
that zigzags through a number of switchbacks as it climbs the near vertical sides of the
mountain to the viewing station at its top. You’ll have the chance to experience the rich
culture of the Andes, including a visit to the Puñuna Condor Museum with its exhibits
and displays relating to the area’s indigenous people.
7.Canoa Once just a sleepy little fishing town rising
from the mangroves and crawling dune vines on the Ecuadorian Pacific, Canoa now boasts
a distinct air of confidence and panache. During the day, tanned locals canoe and kayak
over the rollers, while surfers hone their skills on the challenging left-to-righters
during the high-season (typically running from December through to spring). When night
comes, the town’s clutch of Rasta bars and bamboo cocktail shacks comes alive with Pisco
sours and the chatter of travelers, fusing a low-key hedonism with a bona fide South
American beach town feel. 8.Montanita
Some two hours along the Pacific Coast from the southern, seaside metropolis of Guayaquil
is where travelers will discover the good vibrations of Montanita; a salt-sprayed string
of a town that’s made up largely of lean-to bars and bamboo shacks along the beach.
Home to one of the most reliable and accessible surfing spots in the country, this one’s
bursting to the brim with board rentals and surf teachers offering their services.
Night time is the domain of Marley and the Wailers, while the sunsets bring out the yogis,
who pepper the boulders and cliffs stretching and unwinding in the ocean breeze. 9.Banos
Roaring cataracts cut their way through the ridges of the La Cordillera de los Llanganates
on the edge of Banos, while bubbling hot springs issue plumes of steam into the misty jungles
that dress the land. Trekking trails weave and turn all around
the highlands that encompass the town, and mountain bikers enjoy kilometer upon kilometer
of runs through the rainforests. Yes sir, Banos – the so-called ‘Gateway
to the Amazon’ – is a real jewel (even if it’s ramshackle appearance and ad hoc
rows of guesthouses and adventure guide establishments isn’t the prettiest South America has to
offer!). At the western edge of the Amazon basin, Baños is nestled among dense jungle-like
forests and offers numerous recreational opportunities including hiking and mountain biking. But
the big draw are its mineral-rich hot springs and many waterfalls, some of them accessible
from the town via a series of fun trails incorporating rope bridges with incredible views over the
falls and their deep pools. Adventure sports such as whitewater rafting and kayaking are
also popular here.  10.Otavolo
Set high in the Northern Sierra ranges north of Quito, the charming little backwater town
of Otavalo has become a real gringo favourite in the last couple of decades.
But its draws aren’t new. No sir, that buzzing marketplace, complete
with its stacks of alpaca wools and colourful Quechua clothes, animist totems and reed-grass
voodoo pieces, has been going for centuries, and the people here can trace their roots
back to the pre-Incan tribes of the high Andean plateaus.
Then there’s the backcountry, which lurches like a great backbone out of the earth with
the peaks of Imbabura Volcano – another of Ecuador’s top climbing spots.
If visiting in June, be sure to check out the famous Inti Raymi (Festival of the Sun)
music festival featuring numerous local musicians with their distinctive instruments and sounds.

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