Glance over Ecuador and your eye meets the Amazon, the cloud-coated foothills of the Andes, the golden rim of the Pacific Coast and, beyond an expanse of ocean, the Galapagos Islands. Often overlooked in favour of its larger, limelight-hogging neighbours, Ecuador is a kaleidoscope of climate, culture and cuisine, with startling differences in topography and terrain. It’s compact and easy to travel around, too. When it comes to offbeat adventures, Ecuador’ll oblige.
And it just so happens that if you’re looking to escape the Northern Hemisphere’s chilly winter this year, the best time to book is… right now. Here’s our four-sided guide to your Ecuadorian adventure…
Resist the temptation of flying straight to the Galapagos and instead set up base in Quito – the capital sits on the eastern slope of Pichincha, an active Andean stratovolcano that last erupted in 1999. Adopting the pose of a heroic Victorian explorer, spread your map across the mahogany table in the patio bar of Casa Gangotena, an aristocratic mansion built on the site of an Incan temple in a central plaza of old-town Quito. Your first expedition is an acclimatisation climb of the vertiginous tower of the city’s Basilica del Voto Nacional. Pichincha dominates the view but on clear days you’ll spy the near-symmetrical cone of Cotopaxi (5,897m) and, further south, maybe even Chimborazo (6,263m), whose summit is the furthest point on the surface from the earth’s core (take that, Everest). This one’s for seasoned mountaineers only, but climb Chimborazo and your reward is to be the closest you can get to outer space with your feet still on the earth. Hiking at lower altitudes can also be fun (and certainly easier on the lungs). Try ascending the rim of the Quilotoa crater, which will bring you to one of South America’s most awe-inspiring sights: the three-kilometre-wide, impossibly blue, lake-filled caldera. Or descend into the Andean foothills to Mashpi Lodge, a modern monolith of recycled steel from where you can ramble through dreamlike tropical cloud forest.
The Amazon Basin
If you’re expecting gruelling hikes machete-hacking your way through dense vegetation and plucking leeches off your sweat-soaked skin, fear not. Ecuador’s remote Amazonian lodges are set on the banks of jungle-fringed lakes and submerged forests, reachable (leech-free) by boat along a series of capillaried waterways. At jungle camps such as Sani Lodge to the northeast and Kapawi Ecolodge near the Peruvian border, you can learn how tribes like the Huaorani have adapted to the encroachment of Western ideals. What most visitors come for, though, is the wildlife. Sightings of caiman, monkeys, sloths and snakes are practically guaranteed. Plus there’s the thrill of spotting rarer species: anteaters, jaguars, pink river dolphins, peccaries, pumas and more. Nearly 15 per cent of the world’s bird species reside in this Amazonian enclave. No wonder scientists claim Ecuador to be the most biodiverse country on the planet.
Ecuador’s Pacific coast – intersected by the equator – provides some of the most spectacular sunsets on earth. Running parallel to this 200-kilometre stretch of shore is the Ruta Spondylus, connecting the beaches and sleepy fishing villages from Manta in the north to Santa Elena in the south. Near quiet Puerto Cayo, Alain Ducasse-trained chef Rodrigo Pacheco has generated quite a buzz at Tanusas Retreat & Spa hotel, currently a culinary haven for both adventurous foodies and bird-spotters – the region is famous for its red- and blue-footed boobies. Inland, you’ll find an unexpected treasure. Contrary to popular belief, Panama hats originated not in Panama but in Ecuador’s Montecristi, a quaint colonial town where you can pick up a proper superfino straw brim at a snip of the usual price. Sunsets and surfing are the only things taken seriously in fun-loving Montanita, and not far away is Playa de los Frailes, rated among the finest beaches in the world. A pristine ribbon of protected fine-white sand (with not a development block or an ice cream peddler in sight), it benefits from being part of sun-scorched Machalilla National Park, home to Inca-descended families who tend to its mud baths and therapeutic sulphur lake.
The Galapagos Islands
What hasn’t already been written about this volcanic archipelago? It was Darwin who kickstarted the craze; now it’s the destination for budding botanists and wildlife lovers. Famously, the evolutionary theorist’s study ground is home to some of the most remarkable flora and fauna on the planet, including deep-sea-fishing iguanas who sneeze salt, magnificent frigatebirds with their vibrating crimson throat balloons, and giant tortoises, some of whom were born before the invention of the telephone. At the eco-luxe Galapagos Safari Camp, you’ll be in the very heart of it – these teak-floored tents set in 135 acres of farmland are bordered by unspoilt jungle, ocean shores and otherworldly landscapes teeming with creatures found nowhere else on earth. Your expert-led hosts will take care of everything, leaving you to choose from five-, six- or seven-day itineraries that take in, among other things, flamingo-dotted lagoons, scuba and snorkelling excursions, tortoise reserves, the Charles Darwin Research Centre and a string of active volcanoes.