Ecuador comprises four amazingly distinct landscapes in a single country about the size of Nevada. The Andean highland region of La Sierra forms the central backbone of the country and contains both the capital city of Quito and some 44 percent of the Ecuadoran population. El Oriente, the rain forest of the eastern Amazonian basin, occupies about half the country's land mass, but contains only nine percent of the population. La Costa, the coastal lowlands west of the Andes, contains the biggest city, Guayaquil, and 47 percent of the population. The Galápagos Islands are the fourth component of the land, and if not everyone realizes that these peaks of giant submerged volcanoesthe workshop of Charles Darwinare part of Ecuador, that's probably because they lie 620 miles to the west of the mainland.
WHEN TO GO
Ecuador's equatorial Andean region, La Sierra, is temperate year-round, with clear skies and temperatures averaging 70 to 75° F during the day, dropping considerably at night. The drier months between June and December are best (especially July and August). The rest of the year is rainy season, though the daily afternoon showers tend to be short-lived. In fact, it's a "four seasons in one day" region, with springlike mornings, summertime at midday, fall in the afternoons, and wintry nights. In La Costa, temperatures range between 76 and 90° F year-round with high humidity during the rainy season and drier, but by no means dry, air the rest of the time.
The rain-forest region of El Oriente is warm, wet, and humid with an average temperature of 80° F, a good 12 feet of rain per year, and humidity often registering 100 percent. Still, precipitation tends not to be relentless. It generally rains hard, then dries out every daywhich gives you the choice of finding shelter or getting drenched and then drip-drying, like the locals.
The Galápagos Islands have a tropical climate year-round, but from June through early September the heat is tempered by cool garúa (mist), bringing temperatures down to around 72° F and roughing up the seas somewhat. January through May are the best months to visit, with their classically tropical climate: hot air, blue skies, and occasional brief, heavy downpours that make the highlands verdant. July and August, with their less-than-ideal weather, are nonetheless the months when the tourists swarm.
HOW TO GET THERE
Direct flights from the United States are available in Miami, Atlanta, Houston, and New York, and land in Quito Mariscal Sucre International Airport on the outskirts of the city (593-2-2944-900; www.quitoairport.com). Bear in mind that most flights arrive at night, and you may have to walk in the open between the plane and the terminal. At nearly 10,000-foot elevation, it can be chilly, so pack accordingly and don't count on airport facilities being open. Taxis are readily available and should not cost more than $5 to any Quito hotel, though most of the hotels will arrange airport pickup for their guests. All international passengers pay a $25 departure tax.
If you're planning to stay around the tourist hubs of Quito and Guayaquil, renting a car isn't a bad idea; both airports have outlets for major rental agencies like Avis, Budget, and Hertz. Buses within both cities are also cheap and reasonably reliable, but because taxis are plentiful and cheap, they're the preferred mode of transport for most travelers staying in the cities. A taxi ride from the Quito airport to the historic city center usually costs less than $10; the fare is about the same from Guyaquil aiport to most area hotels.
Once outside the major city hubs, the roads in Ecuador tend to be badly marked; it's easy to get lost. The best way to tackle long-distance jumps is either by flying with a domestic carrier like Aerogal (www.aerogal.com.ec), or by taking a tour bus. You'll find many of these in Ecuador, with varying standards of reliability and crowdedness (a "full" bus often means the aisles, as well as the seats, are packed). Gray Line, which runs trips in clean, modern buses to nearly all points of interest in the country, is the best choice (www.graylineecuador.com).
Getting to the Galápagos Islands means you'll need to take a connecting flight from Quito or Guayaquil. From Quito, the trip is about two hours; from Guayaquil, 1.5 hours. Trips to the Amazon rain forest also require a connecting flight from Quito to the jumping-off destination of Coca. The flight takes about a half-hour.
Ecuador Ministry of Tourism
N32-300 Eloy Alfaro
Tel: 593 2 2507 559
Tel: 212 633 2047
Quito Metropolitan Tourism Corporation
1201 García Moreno
Tel: 593 2 2959 632
NEED TO KNOW
Capital City: Quito
Population: 13.4 million
Area: 105,000 square miles
Telephone Calling Code(s): 593
Electricity: 110 V, 60 Hz
Currency: As of Dec 30, 2008:
1 United States Dollars = $1.00 US Calculate Other Amounts
Ecuador does not require visas for citizens of the United States. A valid passport is sufficient for a three-month stay.
GOOD TO KNOW
Books and Movies
Ever since Charles Darwin's 1831 visit to the Galápagos Islands, which inspired him to write the earth-shattering theory of evolution, Ecuador has been fairly absent from the globe-trotting literary circuit. In the past few years, however, Ecuador has undergone a renaissance of artistic import, serving as Russell Crowe's lush backdrop in both Master and Commander (2003) and Proof of Life (2000).
Ecuadoran cuisine varies greatly by region. Along the coast, seafood reigns and is used in many dishes, including ceviche. (Unlike in other Latin American regions, though, the tradition here is for the shellfish and shrimp to be cooked a little before it's cured.) In the mountains, trout farms are ubiquitous, so expect trout on every menu, along with fiery roasted pork and beef. The Amazon's bounty is famed for dishes such as wild chicken and the national (somewhat pork-like) dish of guinea pig, known as cuy. Ecuadoran tropical fruits and berries are used to make wonderful juices, which are served with almost every meal and are usually freshly squeezed, with sugar added for sweetness (when ordering, it's okay to ask that the sugar be held, if you're trying to avoid it).
Ecuador isn't exactly one of the world's great shopping destinations. But picking up a native Panama hat (yes, these are Ecuadorian, not Panamanian, creations) is a must. The best place to find one is in the south-coast village of Montecristi, where a handful of master weavers still employ the same traditional hat-making methods that have been used for 300 years.
Throughout the country, prices on activities such as transport and museums are often substantially higher for tourists than for local residents. This isn't worth worrying about, though: For one thing, you can't do anything about it; and for another, the prices are still cheap. The country also has an official sales tax of 12 percent, but this is, similarly, only really in evidence in tourist shopping areas.
Before taking a local's picture, ask for permission. Many indigenous groups here have superstitious beliefs against photography, though most are just annoyed by it.
January: 1, New Year's Day
February or March: Carnaval
May: 1, Labor Day; 24, Battle of Pichincha Day; Corpus Christi
July: 24, Simón Bolívar's Birthday
August: 10, Independence Day
October: 9, Independence of Guayaquil
November: 1, All Saints' Day; 2, All Souls' Day; 3, Independence of Cuenca
December: 6, Founding of Quito; 25, Christmas Day
Spring: Thursday before Easter, Holy Thursday; Friday before Easter, Good Friday; Easter