Ecuador’s main draw is the Galapagos Islands, but the South American country’s capital, Quito, its rainforest and national parks are also gaining traction.

“Ecuador may be small but there’s lots to do: think of it as South America in miniature: beaches, the Amazon, colonial cities, volcanoes and even a ‘cloud forest’ – one of the rarest kinds on earth”

ADAM COULTER, TRAVEL WRITER

Perfect 10

  1. Bright colours: : Don’t miss a stopover in Otavalo to enjoy the indigenous market which sells traditional handicrafts and brightly coloured hand-woven textiles

  2. Face to face: Dive with hammerhead sharks off the Galapagos islands of Wolf and Darwin

  3. Crossing the divide: Straddle two hemispheres at once in Quito

  4. Postcards from the edge: Post a letter or a postcard from Post Office Island – and hope it gets delivered to you by hand one day from another traveller

  5. Cloud nine: Take a Gondola through the cloud forest at Mashpi Lodge, three hours from Quito and encompassing 1,200 hectares of the Choco bio-region

  6. Hat trick: Visit Cuenca, a colonial gem and the second biggest city in Ecuador, for museums, restaurants and stunning architecture – as well as the iconic Panama hat

  7. On track: Take a train through the highlands and the Avenue of the Volcanoes to admire spectacular views of valleys and mountains in Machalilla National Park

  8. Shell suit: Take a selfie with a tortoise in the Darwin Scientific Research Park

  9. Night walker: Take a night walk through the cloud forest at Mashpi Lodge – and spot tarantulas

  10. See the locals: Jump in and swim with sea lions in Galapagos

Mainland draws

Ecuador is tiny compared to its giant South American neighbours, nestled into the upper left of the continent, below Colombia and beside Peru, with around 2,200 kilometres of largely unspoilt Pacific coastline.

Its capital, Quito, is relatively small, with a population of just 1.4 million inhabitants, and manageable for visitors. Quito is a fascinating city, full of colonial architecture and grand squares; its centre is regarded as the best-preserved historic centre in all of South America and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. It’s also on the Equator, and it’s fun to stand on the northern and the southern hemispheres simultaneously.

The country can be divided into three main areas: the coast, which includes the country’s largest city, Guayaquil and, further north, what remains of Ecuador’s cloud forest.

To the east of the capital lies Ecuador’s slice of the Amazon rainforest; and 200 miles south of Quito you’ll find the ‘Avenue of the Volcanoes’, a breathtaking landscape of seven peaks rising to more than 17,000 ft.

Further south still is the whitewashed university city of Cuenca, a lovely place to wander at leisure for a couple of days.

But it is The Galapagos Islands which draw most people to Ecuador. Lying some 1,000 kms off the coast, the archipelago is about a two-and-a-half-hour flight from Quito.

Going wild in the Galapagos

The Galapagos’ unique appeal is the sometimes unsettling fact that animals seem completely indifferent to our presence. For example, minutes after joining our group for a cruise round the islands on Metropolitan Touring’s Santa Cruz II, I am crouching down, filming a baby sea lion that is not more than three metres away.

I crawl over her mother, trying to get her attention, as blue-footed boobies whirl overhead. I can get even closer; I could probably sit beside both of them even, but there’s a rule that you keep a respectful distance.

Our next stop is the island of Fernandina, where marine iguanas are endemic. Just like in a David Attenborough documentary, they are piled high on top of each other on the rocks, sun-bathing and sneezing out sea water onto one another. I sit on a rock with my camera, waiting for one to return to the sea. I catch the whole sequence: the iguana battles against the waves as it it swims against the current, before making landfall and then crawling onto other iguanas.

Wildlife in the Galapagos is all around you at all times, and it’s not just confined to the unpopulated islands. Walking along the main street of Santa Cruz, the capital, I see herons and sea lions at the fish market, the latter stealing scraps of discarded fish, the former begging like dogs for off-cuts.

I side-step a family of marine iguanas sunning themselves on the pavement and, as I wait for my panga (small boat) to my hotel, a pelican swoops down and sits on the railing beside me, seemingly totally indifferent to my presence.

What the experts say

“In 2016, Ecuador increased its efforts to become a leading tourist destination by increasing the number of flights to major cities and developing new tourism infrastructure.

“AirEuropa launched a new direct flight from Madrid to Guayaquil in December, joining airlines such as LATAM, which operates a number of daily services to Quito and Guayaquil (via Madrid).

“Ecuador’s star attraction remains the Galapagos Islands, but travellers are also taking the time to discover the volcanic landscapes, diverse ecological areas and vibrant culture of Ecuador’s mainland such as its exciting capital Quito, Guayaquil, the Mindo Rainforest and the Avenida de los Volcanes.”
TONY MASON, CEO, LATIN AMERICAN TRAVEL ASSOCIATION (LATA)

What’s new

Hotels: Mashpi Lodge recently launched a canopy gondola, The Dragonfly, allowing a bird’s eye view of the rainforest. Over the next few months the hotel will also be launching a new spa area, including an outdoor jacuzzi amid the cloud t5forest, as well as a dedicated lab where guests can see resident biologists Carlos and Andrea at work. The hotel is also planning a series of experiences that will see guests getting involved in scientific research.

Quito has a number of new hotels opening this year including the 146-room Wyndham Grand Condor, the first hotel to open at Quito Airport; the 133-room Accor Ibis, based in the city centre; and the Holiday Inn Quito Airport, 1.5 kms away from the Mariscal Sucre Airport. The hotel will have 130 rooms, pool, restaurant and a gym.

Cruising: Metropolitan Touring has launched a new Choose Wisely brochure, created as a tool for the trade to help their clients when choosing between larger and smaller vessels in the Galapagos Islands.

Operators: Chimu Adventures has a new tour encompassing the highlights of mainland Ecuador. The 14-day trip starts in Quito and includes Cotopaxi National Park and the Amazonian Rainforest, before ending in the colonial city of Cuenca.

Tren Crucero is launching a new Gold Class, available for booking from September. Gold passengers will share the same itinerary as The Luxury Experience but enrich their experience in signature accommodation every night along the rails. Each historical property offers a unique insight into the history of Ecuador, from Quito’s colonial, UNESCO World Heritage main square, to historical haciendas and restored public buildings dating from the cocoa boom in 19th century Guayaquil, all carefully selected for their singular character, attention to detail and excellence in service.

Where to book it

Journey Latin America’s 10-day Signature Galapagos: Island Hopping is from £4,450pp, including two nights at Casa Gangotena in Quito, three nights at Scalesia Lodge on Isabela Island and four nights at the Finch Bay Galapagos Hotel on Santa Cruz Island, domestic and inter-island flights, excursions and daily breakfast. International flights priced separately.

Latin Trails’ six-day/five-night Sea Star Journey departs from San Cristobal. The cruise includes stops at Española Island, the historic Post Office Bay on Floreana, Santa Fe Island and the volcanic North Seymour Island. From $7,410pp, based on double occupancy, including flights to and from Quito, all meals, entrance/park fees and meals.