The Ecuador Mainland is often overlooked by those heading straight to the Galapagos Islands, yet this little explored country is a destination made for travel. Home to soaring Andean peaks, Amazon wilderness, jagged coastline and cobbled colonial towns, Ecuador boasts all of South America’s allure, and more. Galapagos Islands aside, here are a few of our recommended wonders which highlight Ecuador as a mini South America.
Road trip through The Avenue of Volcanos
Latin America specialist Sam has travelled the length of Ecuador in search of unique, characterful, and sustainable lodges and hotels to ensure we can offer you the best experiences possible. Read on to find out how he got on, and fall in love with the idea of exploring jaw dropping scenery and learning about the Ecuadorian way of life.
I arrived in Ecuador with an exciting endeavour ahead of me: to travel the length of the ‘Avenue of Volcanoes’ by 4x4 – 800km of glorious high-altitude twisting roads that go from the North to the South of the country. I met my guide Jasci in Quito: an eco-travel entrepreneur and lover of the land and its cultures. This lucky guy was going to be my travel companion for the next few weeks and introduce me to a pretty impressive network of unique, characterful and sustainable lodges and hotels the length of the country.
On a mission to get under the skin of the Avenue of Volcanoes, we would be by-and-large ignoring the classic – and undeniably charming – backpacker hotspots of yesteryear, and instead focusing on discovering the exciting future of new Ecuadorian tourism. Running the length of the Avenue of Volcanoes, we would uncover boutique, independently-owned, eco-focused lodges, haciendas, hotels, and cultural experiences to ensure we can we are offering you the most exciting and cultural adventures Ecuador has to offer. Along the way we would be rewarded with some jaw-dropping scenery, and be lucky enough to experience the “must-sees” of Cotopaxi, the reopened Devils Nose railway, and gorgeous colonial downtown Cuenca.
Having ticked off Quito and Otavalo (you can read all about that here...), next up was the charming rustic hacienda of El Porvenir. The rooms in the newer part were cosy and warm, with their own log fire places, but this is not a place where you stay in your room. El Porvenir and its grounds are mid-way up the slopes of a Ruminahui volcano, with the most stunning views imaginable of Cotopaxi , Ecuador’s (and arguably South America’s) most picture perfect, snow-capped volcano.
The hacienda’s warm and fascinating owner, Jorge, is passionate about the region and sustaining the local wildlife and cultures, and will be happy to sit and chat with you next to the roaring fire at dinner should you choose to invite him (don’t worry, he doesn’t impose!). He is also a keen mountain biker and horse rider, and so Jasci and I found ourselves squeezing in a quick ninety minute bike ride before sunset, and then an early morning horse ride before we had to leave after breakfast the next day. Not much of a horse rider myself ( I had only one day of riding under my belt, in the Brazilian Pantanal some seven years earlier) I had a local Chagra rider help me along, which is standard assistance for all beginners here. We took a quick one hour loop up to the viewpoint at the top of Ruminahui, from where I witnessed one of the most stunning panoramas of all my world travels – a 360 degree view of the fertile valleys and massive volcanos that surrounded El Porvenir, with Cotopaxi as the crowning glory. Sitting on my horse, plodding slowly across the crest and then back down the slopes, watching these volcanos disappear behind, I had the first “I’ll never forget this” moment of my Ecuadorian adventure. I can only hope the photos do it some justice.
Whilst that moment was awe-inspiring for me personally, fully passionate horse riders will likely get an even bigger buzz just down the road at Hacienda Alegria, a real paradise for the horse lovers amongst you. However, the variety and setting of El Porvenir will cast a wider appeal… and they have just opened their zip line and climbing networks to add to the rest of their activities. For real luxury, Hacienda San Augustin de Callo is the established top end property at the entrance to Cotopaxi National Park.
Heading south from Cotopaxi to Riobamba, we passed Quilato, a popular walking loop around the volcano and crater lake of the same name, the market town of Salcedo made famous by its delicious ice cream (we made sure we grabbed one or two!), and Campeche volcano, the highest in the country. Often obscured by cloud, Campeche was clear and beautiful (or “showing off” to borrow Jasci’s favourite saying) the whole way south. In fact the weather the entire route was picture perfect, something that is not guaranteed!
After a late lunch in busy Riobamba, we swung by the fascinating Llama Trek project, a pet favourite (excuse the pun!) of Jasci’s. His organisation is passionate about preserving and promoting the local indigenous cultures in Ecuador through progressive tourism, and wherever possible he seeks and assists initiatives like this being run by the local community. The area around Riobamba in particular is strongly indigenous but also very poor, and places like this help locals sustain a long-term living, while at the same time helping tourists understand the workings of the local community. They call that a win-win!
Heading further south again later in the afternoon, the imposing volcanos started to give way to more subtle rolling hills, patchwork fields of farmland, and small single story houses dotting the land. Scattered around the fields, working the land, were the locals, dressed in their beautiful traditional garments and cheerily acknowledging you as you pass by. Our stop for tonight was in the rather bland (on the surface) town of Alausi. The reason we, or any tourist, stops here is to take one of the world’s great train rides: The Devils Nose. Once famed for the hordes of people that would ride perilously on its roof, it has recently been reopened with a refreshing new interest in both safety and scenery. Rather than sit clinging for life on top of a carriage as it navigates the hairpin switch backs down into the steep valley, now you can enjoy the stunning views from the safe luxury of the glass cabins. So lovely were the views, however, that I think I probably would have been prepared to risk that rooftop-clinging experience anyway, had they not got around to revamping it.
In the past couple of years, the whole train network in Ecuador has been rebuilt, cleaned up, made accessible and comfortable, and reopened. Jasci and his compatriots are working with the local communities along the route to help them set up small cultural activities, shops and restaurants in the less developed areas, away from the big cities. The aim of this project is to bring both sustainable revenue to the towns (the businesses he helps create here are to be owned, run and staffed entirely by the locals), and to create a new and eye-opening insight into rural indigenous Ecuador for tourists.
Prior to boarding the Devils Nose, most people stay in the city of Riobamba and rise early for the two hour drive south (the trains run at 8am and 11am). If you’re doing this I’d suggest the crisp and arty Mansion Santa Isabella, bang in the centre and owned by a friendly eccentric young Englishman and his Ecuadorian wife. They also have a quirky cellar bar underneath the restaurant that I loved, and the English owner here prioritises Imagine Latin America clients for upgrades to his one suite too! If the early rise doesn’t appeal, there are accommodation options in Alausi itself, but bear in mind this is a rather quiet, dusty town with little in the way of good restaurants or sights. The beauty of the railway however makes it completely worth the journey.
Cuenca was to be the final highlight at the end of the Avenue of Volcanos, and what a treat it was! After driving what were perhaps the most stunning few hours of our long trip, dropping through deep green valleys via the impressive Inca ruins of Ingapirca, we reached the city from Alausi. Exploring the perfectly preserved colonial architecture of the old town, we walked its charming streets taking in the sights, including most impressively the iconic triple blue domes of the grand Cathedral. On the way we also stumbled across an impromptu break-dancing battle in the main square, a vibrant flower market under the gaze of a white washed church (Ecuadorians insist they grow the best roses on the planet!), and the tranquil river walkway that separates the old and new parts of the city.
Cuenca has in recent years become a bit of a magnet for expats, and it was easy to see why as the evening drew in around the cobbled streets, and we took to exploring the variety of great bars and restaurants in the old town. It was at Tiestos, just a couple of blocks from the main plaza and cathedral, that I experienced possibly the best meal of my life. The owner/head chef visited each table and offered advice on the menu, which for these two road weary intrepid travellers resulted in the fully-blown taster menu. Six courses of tongue-tingling shrimp, fish, chicken and steak dishes, topped off with some great wine (included) and a melt-in-the-mouth dessert… it was a meal made in heaven and also fuelled a thorough exploration of the city’s bars that night.
The word is already out about Peruvian cuisine, but I found the food throughout Ecuador to be just as tasty, possibly better! Earlier that day on the twisting drive down from Alausi we had stopped by the side of one of the roads and sampled the local speciality, which is essentially hog roast but cooked with… wait for it… a flamethrower! This was very much a detour from the normal tourist route, and if the idea horrifies you then don’t worry, you won’t experience it unless you go looking for it. However, if you are on a private tour and are intrigued, ask your guide and they are sure to find somewhere serving this local speciality for you. And yes, it tastes great! Either way, this is just an example of the kind of weird and wonderful (and delicious) off-the-beaten-track cuisine you can find up in the Ecuadorian mountains.
The next morning we set off from Cuenca for our last drive down to the huge coastal city of Guayaquil, which is the gateway to the Galapagos (a week to ten days heading south through the Avenue from Quito, followed by a Galapagos cruise, is THE perfect Ecuador holiday). The drive was a microcosm of Ecuador’s incredible biodiversity, dropping thousands of feet in a matter of hours, from high snow-dusted mountain passes in El Cajas National Park, plunging through misty atmospheric cloud forests, and then out on to the long flat fertile plains heading towards the sunny coast. When you consider that the Amazon jungle was just the other side of those mountains and that from Guayaquil you can hop on a short flight to the Galapagos, it is easy to conclude that there is simply nowhere else in South America that offers the variety of accessible wild wonders that Ecuador can. It is literally a nature lover’s paradise, and the eco-tourism boom is just about to hit the big time… get there now before the crowds!
Inspired? Check out the below itinerary to see what you can combine with your trip to the Avenue of Volcanoes:
Ecuador Discovery by Train and Cruise.
Our specialists can plan you a tailor-made trip.