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Did You Know … ?

  • Ecuador’s official currency is the U.S. dollar — and $1 coins are favored over paper bills.
  • Panama hats are made in Ecuador, not Panama.
  • Cotopaxi in the Ecuadorian Andes is the world’s highest active volcano (19,347 feet).
  • Ecuador counts 13 indigenous groups among its citizens.
  • Chimborazo is the world’s highest mountain, i.e., its peak is fartherest from Earth’s center (Everest is highest above sea level).

Life at the Equator

The terrain, climate, cultures and tourist attractions vary so widely in a space the size of Colorado, it may seem Ecuador is simply a small family of countries conveniently knit together for the tourist’s convenience.

There are three distinct regions on the South American mainland: 1) coastal lowlands, a strip of land at sea level, with temperatures appropriate to a country on the Equator; 2) Andean highlands, which indeed are high lands, such that it is never hot in places like Quito which sits in a valley 9,260 feet above sea level, and 3) eastern lowlands, comprising tropical forests and part of the Amazon basin, which get lots of rain.

Ecuador’s indigenous groups live in all these environments, often retaining many aspects of their pre-Columbian lifestyle, including clothing styles and belief systems (even if combined with Catholicism). Amerindians are a quarter of the population; 65% are mestizo (mixed Amerindian and white). The remainder are Spanish or African.

Spanish is the official language, but Quechua is the most common indigenous language. Both were imported. Most of Ecuador was conquered by the Quechua-speaking Incas in the late 15th century. The Incas were swept out by the Spanish in the 16th century.

Ecuador attained independence in 1830, but the Spanish impact remains evident in churches, haciendas and colonial town centers, mostly in the Andes. The Incas left their mark, too, the Ingapirca compound the most notable archaeological site.

Finally, there is the fourth “country” — the Galapagos Islands, 600 miles from the mainland. Most of the islands are a national park to ensure humans don’t overtax the environment. There are human residents now, but the islands belonged solely to some of the world’s most remarkable animals when Charles Darwin came calling in the 19th century. Those critters are the key reason tourists visit today.

Ecuador has a high crime rate, some of it violent, which is why cities and even some hotels add security personnel in places frequented by tourists. The issue is further complicated by drug-related crime near the Colombian border. There are health risks, too, especially in the jungle. Visitors must be aware of these issues at time of travel.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Spend a couple of nights in a jungle lodge on the Napo River, and take guided jungle walks by day.
  • Walk or cycle to the crater of the Quilotoa volcano. This journey takes you through striking scenery and picturesque villages.
  • Go sailing on Lake Mojanda, at the foot of Imbabura, an inactive volcano.
  • Attend Carnival in Ecuador. A couple of the top events are in Ambato and Guaranda. Don’t be surprised if someone tosses a water balloon at you. Ecuadorians play water games, as well as wear masks and dance, at Carnival time.
  • If you are serious about mountaineering, climb Cotopaxi, the world’s tallest volcano. Stay overnight at a refuge found at 5,750 feet above sea level.
  • Join or arrange a llama trekking expedition in the Andes. The llama carries your gear, but not you.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Book a cruise in the Galapagos Islands to see the animals that inspired Charles Darwin’s thinking.
  • Travel by train from Riobamba to Alausi in order to experience the dramatic switchback section that takes riders down the vertical side of a big rock called Devil’s Nose. When constructed between1899 and 1908, this rail line was considered  “the most difficult railway in the world” to build.
  • Ecuador is relatively small but well supplied with Spanish colonial town centers, including Cuenca, Ibarra, Latacunga and Riobamba, not to mention Quito itself. Choose one or two, and plan a sightseeing trip around them.
  • Walk through the beautifully restored Barrio de las Penas neighborhood on Santa Ana Hill in Guayaquil. You’ll be able to buy souvenirs or snacks, and the photos will be very colorful.
  • Spend a couple of nights (or more) at an 18th century hacienda. Enjoy horseback riding, and head to the local markets.
  • If a birder, sign on for birding expeditions of one day or longer in a country with more than 1,600 bird species and where you could see 40 species a day. Add the Andean cock of the rock and the toucan to your list of sightings.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Buy a Panama hat.
  • Also, buy Andean handicrafts at any of a number of traditional markets. Otavalo is the most famous, but there are other towns with markets or that specialize in specific goods. Cotacachi is noted for leather goods.
  • Ecuador boasts a number of charming small boutique hotels, often converted from large private homes built in the 19th century, or earlier. Stay in one for a really memorable visit.
  • Take a guided day excursion from Cuenca to Ecuador’s top Inca ruin, Ingapirca.
  • Parts of the Machalilla National Park on the Pacific coast are a breeding ground for humpback whales. Time your visit right and whales will come to you, after a fashion.
  • Schedule some serious spa time — and some fine dining, too — at La Mirage Garden Hotel and Spa, located two hours’ drive north of Quito on an Andean hillside. It is the only Relais & Chateaux property in Ecuador.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult Ecuador Travel at