Postcard-pretty centers, waves splashing white-sand beaches, Kichwa villages, Amazonian rainforest and the breathtaking Andes – a dazzling array of wonders is squeezed into this compact country.
The historic centers of Quito and Cuenca are lined with photogenic plazas, 17th-century churches and monasteries, and beautifully restored mansions. Wandering the cobblestone streets amid Spanish colonial architecture is a good insight into the troubled history of the area. 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.
Setting off on a hike in the Andes can seem like stepping into a fairy tale: a patchwork of small villages, gurgling brooks and rolling fields and maybe a condor slowly wheeling overhead. 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, sleeping 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 rivers along the jungle-clad banks of the Oriente.
The famous Galápagos Islands, with their volcanic, otherworldly landscapes, are a magnet for wildlife lovers. Here, you can respectfully observe 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. Set out on the rivers and forested trails in search of monkeys, sloths, toucans and river dolphins. Some lodges also have canopy towers offering magnificent views (and a better chance to see birdlife). Mindo's cloud forest is considered a birder's paradise, and the country has counted more than 1600 avian species.
After days of Ecuadorian adventures, there are many appealing places where you can go to relax amid awe-inspiring scenery. Head to the highlands to recharge at a historic hacienda, or find Zen-like beauty at a cloud-forest lodge near Mindo. There are peaceful, timeless mountain villages like Vilcabamba and picturesque former gold-mining towns such as Zaruma that offer a perfect antidote to the vertiginous rush of modern-day life. And for a coastal getaway, you'll have plenty of options, from tiny end-of-the-road settlements like Ayampe and Olón to charming towns on the Galápagos, with great beaches and magnificent sunsets.