Ecuador See And Do
This charming colonial city, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has many of the charms of Quito and less menace. Perhaps that's why a number of U.S. expats (particularly retirees) have chosen Cuenca as their second home. Evidence of the American presence can be seen in the number of Italian-style eateries with names like Chicago Pizza or New York Pizza (for finer culinary fare, stop in at the Restaurant Casa Alonso). But the influx of new money is not all bad—Cuenca is cheerful and well-preserved and maintained, with free Wi-Fi in public squares like the Plaza de San Sebastian. Churches and cathedrals abound, the prettiest of which is the Church of Santo Domingo, even though it's certainly not as grand as the Church of San Francisco. A traditional center for crafts, Cuenca boasts one unique claim to fame—it's the birthplace of the paja torquilla, more commonly known as the Panama hat, since the hats were originally exported to Panama in the late 1970s for distribution to the international market. If you're interested in seeing the production process from palm frond to finished product, take a tour at Homero Ortega. For those who'd rather just have a quality souvenir, the boutique at Homero Ortega has a fantastic selection, with prices from $20 to $200. Cuenca is also the most convenient launching point for a visit to La Cajas National Park and the Ingapirca ruins.—Cathay Che
The Amazon rain forest is, of course, the world's largest remaining tropical rain forest, and Ecuador has a cherished two-percent share of it. Ecotours are proliferating here, as are cultural tours that let visitors experience something of the extraordinary indigenous lifestyle that is fast disappearing. Ecuador's Rio Napo, one of the mighty Amazon's primary tributaries, is home to some 200 distinct peoples who have been here for more than 10,000 years. Some ecotour operators let you meet members of the Siona, Secoya, Quichua, or Shuar groups and share some of their extraordinary knowledge of forest plants and wildlife. Barring total immersion—or volunteering with a nonprofit organization—you can visit the more accessible rain-forest areas of Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, Huaorani Protectorate, or Yasuni National Park even if you only have four or five days. Surtrek runs excellent small-scale tours to these areas and many others in the Amazon basin; you'll explore both on foot and via kayak, and spend the night in jungle lodges(www.surtrek.com).
These islands, which don't really need an introduction, were never part of the continent of South America, so their flora and fauna developed in isolation and subsequently gave Charles Darwin a unique window into the evolutionary process. Modern-day wildlife enthusiasts will find the islands (actually the peaks of underwater volcanoes, some of which are still active) just as fascinating; having never learned to fear humans, the copious animal species are amazingly approachable. The jumping-off point for touring the islands is the central Isla Santa Cruz, which contains the Charles Darwin Research Station and Puerto Ayora, with its population of 16,000. To the east is Isla San Cristóbal, which has the provincial capital of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and a few visitor sites. The biggest island by far, formed out of the lava flow from six separate islands, is the 1,800-square-mile Isla Isabela, rife with iguanas, tortoises, orcas, penguins, and many other bird species. But it's the more southerly Isla Española that's best for the birds, harboring 10,000 breeding pairs of waved albatross as well as a giant colony of blue-footed boobies.
There are countless tour operators that can bring you around these islands and others in the archipelago, but Explorers' Corner (www.explorerscorner.com) and Ecoventura (www.ecoventura.com) are two of the best. Both offer small-scale luxury tours for fewer than 20 passengers. Explorers' Corner runs cruises on board a 34-foot sailing catamaran (with a small fleet of kayaks for exploring nooks and coves); Ecoventura has a trio of 83-foot motor yachts.
These are the largest known Incan ruins in Ecuador, and it's shocking to see an archeological site so exposed and so accessible to visitors. This is not your usual tourist site: There are no ropes or barriers, and you can climb, crawl, sit, and take photos throughout the 15th-century complex built as a resting place for Incan travelers and troops (thus the fortress-like layout). You can also walk on ancient footpaths over the impressive aqueduct system and touch incredible structures like the Temple of the Sun—their stonemasonry was masterful, with stones stacked so tightly that no mortar was needed. The Canari, the indigenous people of the area who were briefly dominated by the Inca, still manage and hold ceremonies in the ruins (though hopefully sacrificial virgins are no longer required). The one issue with the site is that it's overrun by day-trippers who arrive by the busload from Quito. Consider staying at Posada Ingapirca, just a few minutes walk from the ruins, to beat the crowds in the morning hours.—Cathay Che
The coast of Ecuador varies enormously along its 1,400-mile length. The northernmost "Green Province" of the Esmeraldas, where the Spanish first landed in 1526, is part wild, lush tropical jungle and mangrove forest; part quiet shoreline dotted with fishing settlements; and part frenetic oceanfront resort. South of Esmeraldas, Manabí province is lined with resort cities like Puerto López, Montañita (a world-renowned surfing destination), and Salinas, which attract throngs of Quiteños and Guayaquileños in summer. More tranquil is Machalilla National Park, with the perfect Pacific beach of Los Frailes—a good whale-watching point. The central coast has mile upon mile of amazing white-sand beaches and fishing villages stretching all the way to unlovely Guayaquil. Ecuador's biggest city and main port, it's not a big draw, though there have been recent moves to upgrade its desirability. South of here, El Oro province continues all the way to Peru and is notable for its production of two major Ecuadoran exports, shrimp and bananas.
The stunning Andean highlands are getting easier to access, thanks to the array of newly opened haciendas in this region. More and more of the elite of the land are opening their ancestral piles to paying guests (although many are still working farms and offer small-scale lodging options like uniquely decorated rooms and home-cooked food). From these comfortable bases, you're free to explore a landscape more varied than it seems at first, with paramo (high-altitude grassland) and lush farmland alternating with cloud forest, mountain lakes, active and glaciated volcanoes, Incan ruins, thermal baths, and colonial towns. Here you'll see condors (if you're lucky—they're an endangered species), horses, llamas, and the people who tend them in their multicolored woven wraps and black trilby-like hats.
The capital, Quito, is partly colonial (in fact, its historic center has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1978), but it's also part sprawling modern metropolis. North of Quito in the Imbabura province is the town of Otavalo, utterly unmissable on account of its huge daily market brimming with top-quality handmade goods (especially of the woven variety) as well as chickens, llamas, spices, potatoes, and exotic fruit. Imbabura's capital, Ibarra, with its colonial whitewashed buildings, cobblestone streets, and red-tiled roofs, is known as the White City. It's where to board the atmospheric, scenically stunning, but totally unreliable steam train to the coastal town of San Lorenzo. Near here is the center of the world—literally. The Mitad del Mundo, the monument that marks the equator, is nondescript, but it's still kind of cool to know you're straddling the earth (so to speak). Other major must-sees (or must-hikes) are the Avenue of the Volcanoes—the jagged southern Andean region stretching from Quito to Cuenca—and Cotopaxi National Park, home to the Mount Fuji of Ecuador, the perfect snow-capped cone of Cotopaxi. At well over 19,000 feet high, it's the world's second-highest active volcano, and it's breathtaking.
Just 14 miles north of Quito is the equatorial dividing line that gave Ecuador its name. As the story goes, three French astronomers first marked the line during the Geodesic Mission of 1736, naming the area the Mutad del Mundo or "middle of the world." Even though their measurements were slightly off, they established what would become the metric system and unwittingly created what has become one of the most popular tourist attractions in Ecuador. The novelty of standing on the equator draws diverse crowds to the rather tacky collection of monuments and pseudo museums in the area, like the Museo del Quito en Miniatura (yes, a miniature model of colonial Quito). The most amusing of the tourist attractions is the Museo Solar Inti Nan, where you can pour water down a hole on one side of the line and it goes a different direction on the other side or balance an egg on the head of a nail right on the equatorial line.—Cathay Che