Cultural Splendor The historic centers of Quito and Cuenca – both Unesco World Heritage Sites – are lined with photogenic plazas, 17th-century churches and monasteries, and beautifully restored mansions. Wandering the cobblestone streets amid architectural treasures from Spanish colonial days is a fine way to delve into the past. You can travel further back by contemplating great pre-Columbian artworks at museums across the country.
Beyond the cities, the Ecuadorian landscape unfolds in all its startling variety. There are Andean villages renowned for their colorful textiles and sprawling markets, Afro-Ecuadorian towns where days end with meals of fresh seafood and memorable sunsets, and remote settlements in the Amazon where shamans still harvest the traditional rainforest medicines of their ancestors.
Andean Adventure Setting off on a trek into the Andes can seem like stepping into a fairy tale: there’s the patchwork of small villages, gurgling brooks and rolling fields, with a slowly wheeling condor overhead. Then the mists clear, a view of those towering snow-covered peaks comes into view, and the adventure begins – the challenging climb to the summit of a 5000m-high volcano.
Although the view from the top is sublime, you don’t have to scale a mountain to enjoy the Andes. These verdant landscapes make a fine backdrop for mountain-biking, horseback-riding or hiking from village to village, overnighting at local guesthouses along the way. Ecuador’s other landscapes offer equally alluring adventures, from surfing tight breaks off the Pacific coast to white-water rafting Class V rivers along the jungle-clad banks of the Oriente.
Wildlife-Watching The famed Galápagos Islands, with their volcanic, otherworldly landscapes, are a magnet for wildlife lovers. Here, you can get up close and personal with massive lumbering tortoises, scurrying marine iguanas (the world’s only seagoing lizard), doe-eyed sea lions, prancing blue-footed boobies and a host of other unusual species both on land and sea.
The Amazon rainforest offers a vastly different wildlife-watching experience. From a remote lodge tucked away in the jungle, you set out on the rivers and trails snaking through the undergrowth in search of monkeys, sloths, toucans, river dolphins, anacondas and other creatures. Some lodges also have canopy towers offering magnificent views (and a better chance to see birdlife).
Speaking of birds, premontane cloud forest is yet another biologically rich area, and home to a fantastic array of avian life. Indeed the Mindo area, with more than 350 recorded bird species, is one of the best bird-watching sites in all of South America.
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Best places to stay in Ecuador
Ecuador & the Galapagos Islands travel guide
Colonial cities, misty cloud forests, towering Andean peaks, Amazonian rainforest and the otherwordly Galápagos – for such a small country Ecuador has a stunning array of natural and cultural wonders.
Most action-packed jungles
Make like Tarzan and take on one of these truly original rainforest adventures. This article is adapted from Lonely Planet's 1000 Ultimate Adventures. Battlefield crossing, Kokoda Track, Papua New Guinea Hiker on the Kokoda Track. Image by Andrew Peacock / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images.
Top historic sites in Ecuador
Ecuador & the Galapagos Islands - Plan your trip (Chapter)
Your journey to Ecuador starts here. You'll find the tools to plan your adventure: where to go and when, how much to budget, plus in-depth info on the natural features of a land that straddles the equator.
Spread across a spectacular Andean valley and flanked by volcanic peaks, Quito’s setting alone is enough to strike you speechless.
Riding Ecuador’s 'railway in the sky' in style
Anyone for the Avenue of the Volcanoes? How about traversing the Devil's Nose? They might sound intimidating, if not downright risky, but Ecuador’s Tren Crucero, or 'Cruise Train', passes both as it winds its way from Quito high in the Andes to Guayaquil down on the Pacific coast.
Ecuador & the Galapagos Islands - North Coast & Lowlands (Chapter)
Ecuador's north coast may not feature the outstanding natural attractions found in much of the country, but its empty beaches, little-explored mangrove forests, indigenous settlements and delectable African-Ecuadorian cuisine are a few of the reasons why many come here.
Amazing wildlife, both on land and underwater, is the drawcard of the remote Galapagos Islands. Tour Galapagos's outstanding natural beauty and interesting history by foot, boat and bike on this active adventure.
Peru & Ecuador Adventure
Discover the heart and soul of Andean South America on this adventure tour that takes you from the cobblestone streets of Quito to the dizzying altitude of La Paz. Discover the extraordinary history of the Inca as you trek through misty cloud forests along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
The best places to learn to dive
Dreaming of getting your dive ticket? Looking for a combination of idyllic conditions and reputable dive outfits, we’ve narrowed down the top spots to get certified. Because life’s too short to miss out. Byron Bay, New South Wales, Australia Tallow Beach, Byron Bay. Image from Wikimedia Commons. The diving: just 2.
Ecuador & the Galapagos Islands - The Galapagos Islands (Chapter)
The Galápagos Islands may inspire you to think differently about the world. This isolated group of volcanic islands has taken on almost mythological status as a showcase of biodiversity, with many of the creatures who call the islands home found nowhere else in the world.