Ecuador has it all: jungle, mountains, coast and the Galapagos Islands. Adding to the convenience, Ecuador is tiny when compared with other South American countries. No overnight bus rides are necessary, as your next destination is most likely less than 5 hours away. Ecuador is also a cheap place to travel; buses charge approximately $1 USD per hour, set lunches and dinners are incredibly reasonable, and lodging can be found between $6-8 USD per night ($8-10 pp in private rooms). Check out Eating Ecuador for cuisine information. -August 2014
The Ecuadorean Sierras stretch from Perú to Colombia and are home to some great hiking, trekking, and mountaineering. Additionally, many of the country’s most pleasant cities and markets are located in this region. In the south, Vilcambamba, Loja and Cuenca offer access to nature (the Podocarpus and Cajas National Parks), and varying degrees of city life. Laid-back and small Vilcabamba is an expatriate hotbed. Loja mostly serves as a transfer hub for travelers, but is a fine place to spend a night. Cuenca is the real jewel of the southern Sierras; a colonial city with beautiful architecture, fantastic parks and public spaces and a great central market.
Further north lies Latacunga, which is situated near major mountaineering and trekking destinations, such as Quilotoa Crater and Cotopaxi. Tour agencies are numerous, offering 2 or 3 day summit excursions to Cotopaxi and other nearby mountains. Buses run regularly to Quilotoa or Sigchos, the ends of the popular Quilotoa Circuit trek. This trek can be done in 2-3 days, but if you have more time, it is certainly worth spending in this beautiful location.
Quito, Ecuador’s capital city, is an overwhelming, sprawled-out mess. The new airport is located approximately 90 minutes driving away from the city, and will cost about $22 USD to reach from the city center. Two major bus stations, Carcelén and Quitumbe, are located at the north and south ends of the city, respectively. If you are passing through, a long trip between the two bus stations is in your future. The highlight of Quito is walking through the old colonial center. Beautiful architecture and popular plazas make this a great place to spend a few days, and is certainly the best place to stay inside the city. La Mariscal, another popular neighborhood for tourists to stay, is a lot grimier and seems to have music playing at all hours of the day (go for the nightlife, don’t stay).
Otavalo, Cotocachi and Ibarra are north of Quito, with stunning views to Volcanoes Cotacachi, Imbaburra and Cayambe. Otavalo is famous for it’s Saturday markets. The handicrafts fair is your one-stop shop for all “indigenous” souvenirs. Check out the animal market early in the morning to see live animals being sold. Cock fights happen starting mid-day. In Cotacachi there is a tradition for leather-work, and an entire street is dedicated to selling these items. The nearby Laguna Cuicocha, Laguna Mojanda and Lago San Pedro are all worth visiting. Ibarra is the biggest city around, but isn’t nearly as tourist-friendly as the other two.
Guayaquil is Ecuador’s largest city and largest port, located near the southern end of the coast. It’s hot, expansive and intimidating. Many travelers just pass through, which is exactly what we did. Due east from Guayaquil is Salinas, a popular beach-resort with Ecuadoreans. The “ruta Spondylus” runs from here to Esmeralda. Highlights include whale-watching in Puerto Lopez (and visiting the poor-man’s Galapagos, Isla de la Plata), partying and surfing in Montañitas, or chilling-out in Bahía de Caraquez or Canoa. Seasons matter out on the coast, and you’ll likely experience garúa, or fog and mist, for most of the day if visiting between June and November. January to May is the hottest and rainiest part of the year.
The Galapagos are probably a once-in-a-lifetime destination. Doing it on the cheap is possible, with costs of lodging and food not much higher than on the mainland. We opted to island-hop on our own, forgoing more expensive, multi-day cruises. There are a lot of free activities that can be done on the inhabited islands, and supplementing these with day-tours left us very satisfied with our visit. The most expensive part of the trip is the airfare and entrance fee, so stay as long as you can once you get there.
The Wongenbergs never ventured into the jungle, unless you count Baños de Agua Santa… It’s not really our thing, but the towns of Puyo, Coca, Tena and Misahuallí are good jumping off points.
OTHER PLACES IN ECUADOR
Two months in Ecuador was enough to see a lot of the country, but we still missed places. Here are some suggestions if you have more time, or want to focus on certain areas. Mindo, located in the northern Sierras, is in a cloud forest, and offers ample hiking and wildlife observation. The Mitad del Mundo monument (0° latitude) is about 45 minutes outside of Quito, if checklists are important to you. La Esperanza, about 30 minutes east of Ibarra, enjoys an excellent location inbetween Volcanoes Cayambe and Imbaburra. Riobamba, 4 hours south of Latacunga, is located at the base of Ecuador’s highest volcano, Chimborza. Mompiche has good beaches and surfing, and one of the more under-developed locations on the coast (beware the mosquitoes).