Straddling the equator and bordered by Colombia, Peru and the Pacific Ocean, Ecuador is South America’s tiny country and is easily one of the most diverse on the planet with 25,000 plant species, 1,600 bird species, the mighty Andes, the lush Amazon, and nine national parks - including the unique Galápagos Islands. Packed with heritage, colonial architecture, rainforest, mountains, historic cities, and palm-fringed beaches, it is little wonder that Ecuador is known as ‘the microcosm of South America’.
Named after the Equator and straddling both hemispheres, a holiday to the relatively tiny Ecuador packs in an astonishing array of landscapes, wildlife and indigenous cultures.
Head to Quito, the jewel of a capital that fuses colonial churches, cathedrals, Indian markets, plazas and museums against the backdrop of the Andes and Volcán Pichincha. Marvel at the sumptuous interiors of the San Francisco Church, and admire both the grandiose Carondelet Palace and La Compañía. Two hours north of here is Otavalo, the rural town of Andean artistry that is most famous for its market selling woven goods and textiles.
For more colonial charm, Cuenca, in Ecuador’s artisan-filled southern highlands is trip-worthy for its UNESCO-listed old-world town. Discover whitewashed buildings, cobblestone streets, cathedrals, domed churches, and a daily flower market in the town square.
The Andes form the backbone of Ecuador. Climb the iconic (and active) 19,347-foot-high Cotopaxi Volcano at Cotopaxi National Park, and drive down the Avenue of the Volcanoes, a fascinating chain of active and dormant volcanoes that crown the central highlands.
Ecuador’s attractions are limitless. Straddle the Equator at Mitad del Mundo, watch humpbacks breaching between June and September, and see gasp-inducing mountain panoramas from the confines of your train carriage on the Nariz del Diablo, or ‘Devil’s Nose’ – the celebrated train line that travels between the towns of Alausi and Sibambe.
For back-to-nature thrills, venture deep into the Amazon. Stay in an eco-lodge, take jungle river rides on canoes, and spot a huge variety of wildlife. Equally rewarding for nature-lovers are the volcanic Galápagos Islands, set 596 miles west of Ecuador’s Pacific Coast. This archipelago was inspirational to Charles Darwin, and remains a treasured wildlife haven where you can meet blue-footed boobies, swim with sea lions, and see giant tortoises, birds, penguins, marine iguanas, and much more.
On a recent trip to Ecuador, it was the experience of horse riding in Cotopaxi National Park that really blew Latin America specialist Simon away. As a novice on horseback, here he tells us why this wonderful excursion is something every visitor to Ecuador should try…