Ecuador has it all – and it welcomes visitors of all ages! Impressive Andean mountains with volcanoes, beaches that you share with iguanas and finches, and even rainforests and jungles. Across the country, you encounter a culture that mixes ancient with modern. Whether you are an eco-tourist checking out sustainable forests, or a city dweller who loves a great museum, make sure you allow ample time in this South American gem to discover it all.
As first-time travelers to Ecuador’s capital, Quito, can attest, the adventure begins as you circle the airport. Your plane descends over the mountains covered with lush trees, hills and valleys and lands at the modern Mariscal Airport. The center of Quito is only about a 30-minute drive and you can quickly see why it is a World Heritage Site.
As you immerse yourself in the capital, you hear church bells ringing and scooters zipping past you. During a morning walk down any street, you hear children playfully giggling in school uniforms heading toward school, as the smell of fresh bread tempts you into a local bakery. Resistance is futile – and you relax with cup of coffee while you orientate yourself to a new city.
Good to know in Quito
At about 9,350 feet above sea level, some visitors experience mild altitude sickness. Locals suggest coca tea to alieve symptoms. With colonial-era cathedrals, ancient and contemporary art museums and beautiful architecture towering over the city’s hilly streets, visitors will want to wear comfortable shoes because there is a lot to take in (and the streets are sometimes as steep as San Francisco).
Towering above the Old Town
A trip to Ecuador’s capital must include a walk through the Old Town. And no trip to the Old Town is complete without a tour of the Basílica del Voto Nacional which, rather than traditional European gargoyles, has turtles, armadillos, reptiles and more. This unfinished masterpiece of architecture challenges visitors, especially those who are afraid of heights. You can reach the fifth floor via elevator, but most spectacular views require you to cross above the church’s nave on wooden planks, then climb a ladder to gain access to the exterior balcony. You truly feel as though you are on top of the world as you take in the city from high above. Only the most adventurous ascend (and then descend) an open stairway to the spiral, climbing to a spectacular view.
Fortunately, the elevator reaches the church’s lovely café, where everyone can enjoy a glass of wine while taking in a stunning view of Virgen de el Panecillo. This picturesque statue of the Virgin Mary overlooks Quito from her position at the top of “bread loaf hill.” Don’t worry, this isn’t al fresco dining. Take a seat by the window, if you didn’t dare venture to the balcony, to enjoy Panecillo’s beauty for a fantastic view.
La Ronda offers options for hungry travelers
You can hear music before you can smell the grilled meats and other local delicacies as you pass restaurants along the pedestrian walkway of Calle La Ronda. Café Restaurante Leña Quiteña, offers a second-floor balcony, where you can sit and enjoy people-watching as couples, groups and families make their way along the pedestrian streets below.
Seeing the equator? The real deal is hard to find
As the name suggests, Ecuador lies on the equator and locals are very proud of their geography. So proud, that they built a vast monument – and even a little village – to celebrate the equator. While it has some interesting historical and scientific information, unfortunately, Mitad del Mundo isn’t actually on the equator and once you know you’re not in the right place, it might feel like a tourist trap. Closer still – although not quite perfectly on the spot – is the Museo de Sitio Intiñan. This interactive, open-air museum lets you test out a few of the equator’s myths:
Can you balance an egg on a nail? Answer: Yes, you can, if you are very careful.
Which way does water flow down a drain, clockwise, counterclockwise or straight down? Answer: North of the equator and south of the equator water flows in opposite directions. On the equator, it drains straight down.
Can you tell time using a sun dial? Answer: Yes.
Do geothermic forces impact balance? Answer: Yes. You can test how they affect both your balance and strength.
The museum also gives an overview of indigenous cultures still living in the Amazon, and it offers live demonstrations by local artisans (which you can purchase at their gift shop).
Ecotourism and research opportunities in the rainforest
Are you seeking a rainforest adventure that is only a couple of hours outside of Quito? You may want to consider visiting the Maquipucuna Reserve, located in the heart of the Andean Cloud Forest. Part research center, part ecotourism destination, visitors can enjoy staying in accommodations that honor their natural surroundings. Choose between cabins, houses or camping sites. Professional researchers, students and other parties interested in sustainability can book group visits.
Galapagos or bust!
Avid traveler and retired school principal, Linda Hillman (73), visited the Galapagos. Although she planned to travel with a relative, due to a last-minute complication, Hillman headed to Darwin’s islands on her own and encourages other solo travelers to do the same, as she felt safe throughout the entire trip.
Her adventure started in Guayaquil. Many people who head to the Galapagos do not take advantage of visiting Guayaquil en route (many flights to the Galapagos stop there), but Hillman recommends visitors stop in this charming port. “I didn’t know anyone, but I was able to manage on my own. I loved the town with its wonderful waterfront family park, restaurants and playgrounds. It felt very family-oriented and safe as I meandered around the town, taking in countless gorgeous churches.” Her favorite spot was an “iguana park” (Seminario Park). “I saw iguanas in so many colors: pink, yellow, red, black and more. I didn’t know they came in so many colors.” Guayanquil also offers pristine beaches, a variety of restaurants and shopping.
From Guayaquil, Hillman traveled by plane to the “airport island” of Isla Baltra in the Galapagos to meet her tour group (Wisconsin-based Cruise and Tour). During her ten-day stay, she took every opportunity to take in the sounds and sights of these protected islands. Her favorite activities included:
Island hopping for hikes on natural habitats, including climbing a volcanic island
Kayaking for a close encounter with marine life
Hanging out with the turtles in the highlands of Santa Cruz island, and later seeing where turtles lay their eggs in a seaside lagoon
Learning the history of the islands and natural selection at the Charles Darwin Research Station
Snorkeling on an island with beaches formed from volcanic sand
Her most memorable part of Ecuador were the people. She encountered many families everywhere she went, and was left with memories of people showing kindness to one another. The guides she met stood out for their knowledge both of the natural environment as well as the various types of creatures that one encounters in the Galapagos.
Going with a group let Hillman leave the planning to the professionals. Travelers who visit the Galapagos on their own will find that information for tourists is easy to come by, and single or multi-day trips to explore wildlife or specific islands can be booked either well in advance online or upon arrival. That lets you be more flexible (but waiting may risk specific tours are sold out).
If you don’t go with a group, Puerto Ayora on Isla Santa Cruz can serve as a hub while you explore other islands in the Galapagos. The Semilla Verde Boutique Hotel is an excellent option for visitors who want a unique experience. The property lies about 15 minutes outside of Puerto Ayora and includes an outstanding breakfast (and an optional dinner, at additional cost), has a kitchen where you can cook your own food and a pool. Coffee and tea, plus treated water are available anytime, with wine and beer available for purchase. The most memorable part of your stay will be the permanent residents – multiple large turtles who share the property (although not the rooms) with you. The property is a peaceful oasis – instead of cars, you hear birds as you take in the green landscape from your private balcony. The proprietors are very helpful in booking excursions both on and off the island, as well as arranging transportation, including service to/from the airport.
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Know before you go to Ecuador:
Shots1– Make sure you’ve had your routine shots, including MMR, diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis, chickenpox, polio and your yearly flu shot.
If you are traveling only to Quito and the Galapagos, the CDC advises you to get these additional shots:
Depending on your destination in Ecuador, the CDC may require:
Currency – US dollar
Ecuador’s water supply, sanitation and hygiene process are a concern2.
The Centers for Disease Control advises3 that travelers use bottled water or water that has been disinfected while in Ecuador. Avoid food that is served at room temperature; unpeeled, raw fruits and vegetables; as well as food from street vendors.
Galapagos: When landing in the Galapagos, you are required to pay an entrance fee/tax4, in cash. For non-Ecuadorian adults, the charge is $100. Some attractions limit the number of visitors.
For more information:
1Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Information from the (U.S.) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Subject to change. Check https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/traveler/none/ecuador for current guidelines.
2World Bank. 2017. Pipe(d) dreams: water supply, sanitation, and hygiene progress and remaining challenges in Ecuador (English). Washington, D.C.: World Bank Group. http://documents.worldbank.org/cu rated/en/138251504813180338/Pipe-d-dreams-water-supply-sanitation-and-hygiene-progress-and-remaining-challenges-in-Ecuador Accessed October 23, 2018.
3Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Check current guidelines https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/traveler/none/ecuador#stay-healthy-and-safe