a look back: Ecuador
It all started in Ecuador. For S, Quito was the launching point of her eight-month-long trek through South America. D, meanwhile, called this small Andean nation home for three and a half years. When he finally embarked on his own South American travels, the joy and excitement of the road ahead was tempered by the melancholy of leaving a country that had captured his heart forever.
Many casual visitors to South America skip Ecuador, or worse — spend just enough enough time in Quito to catch a Galapagos-bound flight. This is a mistake. Of course, the Galapagos are worth visiting, but so is the rest of the mainland. Not only is Ecuador one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet, but it also manages to pack in all that diversity — rugged mountains, lush Amazon rainforest, and a pleasant coastline — into an area of just about 100,000 square miles. If it were a U.S. state, it would barely crack the top ten for size.
Ecuador’s biggest deterrent to large-scale tourism is also its greatest asset. Things may have changed in the last 7-8 years, but when we were there Ecuador’s tourism sector was still largely underdeveloped, especially in comparison to Peru, Ecuador’s neighbor to the south and east. There were vast, beautiful national parks that were practically inaccessible, and only a handful of places had earned a spot on South America’s well-worn backpacker circuit.
From whale watching to hiking active volcanos and rafting world-class rivers, there is much more to do and see in Ecuador than we could possibly mention or do justice to in one blog post. If you are thinking of a trip to Ecuador, here are some photos to pique your interest and a couple of suggestions to get you started:
Laguna Quilotoa — Stunning volcanic crater lake located at 4,000 meters above sea level. Among its many magical properties is the fact that it brought us together.
Quilotoa is located a few hours south of Quito along a road that loops through the Andes before returning to the PanAmerican highway. It’s worth spending several days in the mountain villages along this loop — hiking in the canyons and cloud forests, visiting the local markets, and getting an authentic taste of Andean life.
Otavalo, a couple of hours north of Quito, has Ecuador’s most famous market, but while it makes a fine day trip, it’s also worth spending a few days in the area to visit the Mojanda lakes, the stunning Cuicocha lake, or hike the imposing Imbabura mountain. Midway between Quito and Otavalo lies Cayambe (pictured above) — the highest point along the equator and an accessible, if somewhat demanding, ice climb.
It’s hard to spend time in the Andes and not be stirred by a desire to dabble in mountain climbing. There are several spectacular peaks within easy reach of the capital, and D spent a few months’ worth of his Peace Corps allowance on guided ice climbs. Cotopaxi tends to be the one most tourists go for — likely because it is both close to Quito and because it is Ecuador’s most picturesque mountain.
To acclimatize for a big climb — or in lieu of one — there are more gnarly peaks that make for excellent hiking. Iliniza Norte, for example, requires no guide or equipment to ascend. At 5,126 meters above sea level, the summit will still take your breath away — in more sense than one.
The snowmelt from all those mountains has to go somewhere. The result is beautiful waterfalls and rapid rivers, which eventually empty out into the Amazon basin. Ecuador’s Amazon region is home to various indigenous groups, and is worth a visit. Tena is the biggest city in the Amazonia and a great jumping off point for trips deeper into the jungle. If you drive or take the bus to Tena from Quito, make sure to stop in Papallacta along the way and enjoy the hot springs there.
Can’t afford a Galapagos cruise but still want to see some unique wildlife? No problem. Just head to the coast. A few kilometers offshore from Puerto Lopez, where you can go whale watching during the summer months, lies Isla de la Plata — the so-called “poor man’s Galapagos.”