Picturesque colonial centers, Kichwa villages, Amazonian rainforest and the breathtaking heights of the Andes – Ecuador may be small, but it has a dazzling array of wonders. Named after the equatorial line that runs through the country's heart, Ecuador is located on South America's Pacific Coast. Colombia borders it to the north, with Peru to the south and east. Ecuador is home to a rich cultural heritage with grand cathedrals, historic colonial Spanish architecture, expansive haciendas, Latin rhythm, fine cuisine, fresh tropical fruits, bustling markets full of colorful tapestries and other handmade crafts.
The historic centers of Quito and Cuenca are lined with photogenic plazas, 17th-century churches and monasteries, and beautifully restored mansions. Wandering the cobblestone streets amid architectural treasures from Spanish colonial days is a fine way to delve into the past. Beyond the cities, the Ecuadorian landscape unfolds in all its startling variety. There are Andean villages renowned for their colorful textiles and sprawling markets, Afro-Ecuadorian towns where days end with meals of fresh seafood and memorable sunsets, and remote settlements in the Amazon where shamans still harvest the traditional rainforest medicines of their ancestors.
After days of Ecuadorian adventures, there are many appealing places where you can go to relax amid awe-inspiring scenery. Head to the mountainous highlands to recharge at a historic hacienda, or find Zenlike beauty amid a cloud-forest lodge near Mindo. There are peaceful, timeless mountain villages like Vilcabamba and picturesque former gold-mining towns like Zaruma that offer a perfect antidote to the vertiginous rush of modern-day life. And for a coastal getaway, you'll have plenty of options, from tiny end-of-the-road settlements like Ayampe and Olón to charming towns on the Galapagos, with great beaches and magnificent sunsets right outside your door.
The famed Galápagos Islands, with their volcanic, otherworldly landscapes, are a magnet for wildlife lovers. Here, you can get up close and personal with massive lumbering tortoises, scurrying marine iguanas (the world’s only seagoing lizard), doe-eyed sea lions, prancing blue-footed boobies and a host of other unusual species both on land and sea. The Amazon rainforest offers a vastly different wildlife-watching experience. Set out on the rivers and forested trails in search of monkeys, sloths, toucans and river dolphins. Some lodges also have canopy towers offering magnificent views (and a better chance to see birdlife).
Setting off on a trek into the Andes can seem like stepping into a fairy tale: there’s the patchwork of small villages, gurgling brooks and rolling fields, with a condor slowly wheeling overhead. Although the view from the top is sublime, you don’t have to scale a mountain to enjoy the Andes. These verdant landscapes make a fine backdrop for mountain-biking, horseback-riding or hiking from village to village, overnighting at local guesthouses along the way. Ecuador’s other landscapes offer equally alluring adventures, from surfing tight breaks off the Pacific coast to white-water-rafting Class V rivers along the jungle-clad banks of the Oriente.
By Regis St Louis, Writer
Whenever people tell me they want to visit South America, but don't know where to begin, I recommend Ecuador. This is a country that seems to have it all: Andean peaks, Amazon rainforest, indigenous markets, colonial towns, sun-drenched beaches – not to mention a rather famous chain of volcanic islands full of fascinating wildlife. Adding to the appeal is Ecuador's (relatively) small size and its ease of travel (good roads and an easy-to-remember currency). But best of all are the Ecuadorians themselves: kind-hearted, generous and proud of the great strides they've made in the last decade, they are in fact the nation's greatest treasure. By Lonely Planet