Ecuador: Amazon, Andes and Darwin
By Julian Smith
It’s hard to believe that there’s a country out there where you can climb a snow-capped volcano, hike to an Inca ruin, haggle in an Andean market, surf a Pacific wave, and spot a jaguar in the rainforest — all within a day’s travel of the capital. Ecuador offers all that and more: the Galápagos Islands, a natural-history destination that’s truly unique in the world.
In one handy package, Ecuador sums up South America’s “big three” attractions — Amazon, Andes, and beaches — along with one attraction no one else has — the Galápagos — and all within a country that’s inexpensive, politically stable, friendly, and convenient.
Sound too good to be true? Sometimes it seems that way. Sure, Ecuador has gotten some bad press lately, with erupting volcanoes and musical presidents ushering in the new millennium, but travel here is as safe and easy as it’s ever been, and cheaper than almost any other county in Latin America.
The Andes, Ecuador’s rugged backbone, offer adventure tourists the chance to go mountaineering, rafting, hiking, camping, and mountain biking. The more leisurely inclined can shop at indigenous markets, where descendents of the Incas sell their kaleidoscopic weavings, and stay a luxury country estate that’s been in the same family for centuries.
The upper Amazon, Ecuador’s sweaty frontier, is still mostly empty rainforest, even though it makes up the eastern third of the country. Comfortable rainforest lodges and rustic camps serve as bases for hiking into the forest with native guides who know what sickness every plant can cure, plus the directions to the nearest waterfall and rope-swing. If you’re lucky, your guide will take you to visit his village, where you can sip homemade beer, buy a blowgun, and learn how to say “nice monkey” in Achuar.
Most of Ecuador’s 2,200 km of Pacific coastline is graced with beautiful palm-fringed beaches. Travelers can choose from luxury condos or thatched-roof cabins with an ocean view, and go fishing or surfing in their spare time.
Ecuador’s true treasure, though, is the Galápagos Islands. Famous for helping inspire Darwin’s theory of evolution, the islands are still an astounding place to visit: a menagerie of unique animals — without a shred of fear of people — set on jagged volcanic islands in the middle of the Pacific. Hop aboard a tour boat and let your guide introduce you to a boobie, a marine iguana, or a giant tortoise without leaving the comforts of home very far behind.
Whether you head for the hills, the jungle, the beach or the islands, Ecuador seldom disappoints.
- Ecuador’s crown jewels are the Galápagos Islands, stuck 600 miles out into the Pacific Ocean. Here visitors can experience nature in its purest and most astonishing forms: swimming iguanas, tortoises the size of sofas, and birds with bright blue feet, all without the slightest fear of humans. Isolated from the world for millennia, the Galápagos are truly unique in the world, and a visit, though expensive ($1,000 and up per week for an all-inclusive guided tour and airfare), will definitely not disappoint whether you’re a naturalist or not.
On the opposite side of the country, Ecuador’s eastern third contains the upper headwaters of the Amazon rainforest. Local companies offer comfortable accommodations and expert guiding in the heart of the forest, in everything from luxury lodges to a converted Mississippi paddleboat. Independent travelers can also sign on with more economical guided tours involving hiking in rubber boots and hammocks by the river. Many tours involve visits to indigenous tribes like the Yanomami — recent and reluctant entrants into the 20th century.
- Vilcabamba, a small town south of Loja, was first known for the amazing longevity of many of its residents. Today it’s preferred by those looking for a quiet, beautiful retreat for hiking, horseback riding, or just relaxing. The Hostal Madre Tierra (7-580-269) is a budget-minded health spa with rocky pools, massage therapy, and vegetarian food.
- West of the city of Latacunga, a rough loop road reaches far-flung towns after half a day of bumpy travel. In tiny Chugchilán you’ll find the Black Sheep Inn (3-814-587), an ecologically-minded hotel that’s a great base to explore the surrounding Andean backwoods.
- Hike into the canyon of the Toachi River or circumnavigate sky-blue Quilotoa Lagoon in the crater of an ancient volcano.
- If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, head south to Zumbahua for the windswept Saturday morning market (llamas galore), then hike two days southwest through stunning Andean scenery to Angamarca, a remote village with daily buses back in the morning.
- Almost every visitor to Ecuador takes an afternoon to visit the Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World), a huge monument set exactly on the equator ten miles north of Quito, but not nearly as many keep going to the Pululahua Crater and Geobotanical Reserve a few miles beyond. This steep-sided crater is so large that farms fill its flat bottom, and El Crater Restaurant (2-439-254) serves $2 meals at the edge. There’s a refuge and free camping in the reserve itself for anyone wanting to spend the night. Buses run to Mitad del Mundo from Quito every five minutes from morning to evening, and run onward to Pululahua and back every hour.
- Another little-know area near Quito is the quaint neighborhood of Guapulo. It’s on the east side of town down the slope below the Hotel Quito — only a short taxi ride from anywhere in the city — but with its steep, cobbled streets and pretty church, it feels more Mediterranean than Latin American. Here you can stay at the Hostal La Casa de Guapulo, (2-220-473), a colonial-flavored place with as many balconies as rooms ($10 pp), and eat fresh fish on the terrace of the nameless family-run restaurant just uphill.
Ecuador offers activities from the active and athletic to the natural and cultural. Many can be done independently, but for the best experience, you might want to try one of the local guides and outfitters mentioned below
- For outdoorsy types, Ecuador’s highlands are a world in themselves. In a week you can climb the highest active volcano in the world, hit 42 whitewater rapids in a day, or mountain bike through the Andes!
- Trekking is also an option, assuming you have the necessary gear and experience. The five-day Trek of the Condor, from the hot springs at Papallacta to Cotopaxi National Park, is a popular hike outside of the June-August rainy season.
- Ecuador’s Andes are also home to the descendents of the Incas, whose empire once stretched from northern Chile almost to Columbia. Indigenous markets still thrive in towns like Otavalo, Saquisilí, and Latacunga, where you can practice your Spanish as you haggle for everything from alpaca sweaters and wooden festival masks to patent medicines and llamas. (Remember that the first customer of the morning often gets the best price.)
There are a number of fine local outfitters and tour operators that can provide everything from a Galapagos trip to an Amazon cruise to a day hike in the Andes.
- Ecuadorian Alpine Institute
Ramirez Davalos 136 and Amazonas,
Volcano Climbing and other mountain climbing expeditions in the Andes
- Yacu Amu Rafting
Baquedano E5-27 y Juan Leon Mera
White water rafting excursions down some of the wildest rivers in the country
- Flying Dutchman
Foch 714 and Juan Leon Mera
Mountain Biking trips through the Highlands and villages
- Angermeyer’s Enchanted Excursions
Foch 726 and Amazonas, Quito
- Safari Tours
Calama 380 y Juan Leon Mera, Quito
- Metropolitan Touring
Republica del Salvador 970
Amazon tours in ecolodges and converted paddleboats
- Green Planet
Juan Leon Mera 2384 y Wilson
Amazon hiking and camping and village tribe visits. Good for independent travelers.
If you’re interested in earning your keep during an extended stay in Ecuador, it’s possible to get a job teaching English at one of a few dozen schools in Quito. It helps if you speak Spanish, and a TEFL certificate, BA degree, and experience don’t hurt either. You won’t save much to take home, but the pay is often enough to live on comfortably.
- Experiment in International Living, Hernando de la Cruz N31-120 and Mariana de Jesus, Tel: 593- 2-551-937
- Edinburgh Linguistic Center, Mariana de Jesus 910 and Amazonas, 2nd Floor, Tel: 593-2-549-188
- South American Spanish Institute, Amazonas 1549 and Santa Maria, Tel: 593-2-544-715
For volunteering, your best bet is to stop by the Quito clubhouse of the South American Explorers (Jorge Washington 311 and Leonidas Plaza, Tel: 2-225-228). This traveler’s gold mine has plenty of information on volunteering possibilities in the capital and elsewhere, both short- and long-term (along with information on just about anything else there is to do in Ecuador).
If you have an afternoon free and would like to brighten a fellow gringo’s day, pay a visit to the Women’s Prison (Carcel de las Mujeres, on Calle de las Toronjas near the “El Inca” roundabout) or the Men’s Prison (Penal Garcia Moreno, at Rocafuerte and Chimborazo) to chat with one of the many foreigners being held behind bars. Check at the South American Explorers’ clubhouse for a current list of names, and bring your passport and perhaps small gifts such as fresh fruit or toiletries.
There are several Spanish language programs in Quito. Search the Language Schools Directory for Language Learning Programs in Ecuador and check at the South American Explorers Club for information.
When it comes to places to stay, Ecuador caters to all tastes. Whether you want a luxury hotel in the capital or just want to pitch a tent on a beach, it’s possible to find what you’re looking for. Two exceptional alternatives are haciendas — restored colonial manor houses in the Andes — and eco-lodges, which have sprung up from the Amazon to the coast.
It’s possible to pay as much as you do back home for a luxury hotel ($100 and up per night), but budget travelers can also find quite comfortable accommodations for $5 or less per night — with clean sheets and hot water, no less.
The South American Explorers have information on homestays, which average about $100 per month, as do many apartments for rent in Quito and other major cities.
Camping is free and generally safe, particularly in National Parks and the less-traveled reaches of the Andes and coast.
- Alandaluz Ecological Tourist Center, near Puerto López
A flower-filled beach resort built of bamboo on the ocean’s edge. Fully eco-aware and very relaxing, with a bar and restaurant and excursions to nearby Machalilla National Park. Prices start at $10 pp.
- Hacienda Cusin, near Otavalo,
Built in 1602, this colonial spread has been fully restored to five-star elegance. One of South America’s most outstanding inns, complete with monastery, guest cottages, and horseback riding to Inca ruins. Prices start at $86 s/$120 d per day.
- Kapawi Ecolodge, run by CANODROS S.A.,
Tel: 593-4-285-711, 800-367-7378
An environmentally friendly, luxury lodge set deep in the rainforest, almost on the Peruvian border. Visit indigenous Shuar villages and swim with pink river dolphins. Packages of 3 days/4 nights are $762 pp, plus $150 for round-trip airfare.
- Black Sheep Inn
An ecologically-minded hotel that’s a great base to explore the surrounding Andean backwoods.
Ecuador isn’t known for gourmet foods, but it still has plenty of tasty and economical dining options. Plain foods like potatoes, rice, corn, and plantains are staples, along with grains and meat — most often beef — in every form imaginable. A typical meal (“plato tipico“), available for a dollar or less just about anywhere, usually consists of a few vegetables, a bowl of soup, rice, grilled beef, a small dessert, and a drink. A la carte entrees are around $2-3, and few restaurants approach North American prices.
A few specialties are worth checking out, starting with the all-natural fruit sorbet called “helados de paila” made in Ecuador’s northern Andes. Seafood is almost always fresh and excellent, especially if it’s served “encocado” (in coconut milk). A rainbow of tropical fruits turn up in juices (“jugos“) and shakes (“batidos“). If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, try a fried guinea pig, known as “cuy,” which were once raised by the Incas for food.
The diversity, quality, and value of Ecuadorian crafts are amazing. Textiles are the country’s most famous product, particularly those made of wool. Indigenous groups in the Andes like the wealthy residents of Otavalo weave every type of cold-weather clothing, as well as wall hangings both large and small. The streets of Cotacachi near Otavalo are lined with dozens of stores selling leather clothing, luggage, and accessories, while San Antonio de Ibarra near Ibarra rings with the sounds of artisans carving statues.
Indigenous groups in the Amazon turn out hand-coiled pottery decorated with intricate designs, along with blowpipes, seed necklaces, and bags woven from palm fibers. Artisans in the Tigua Valley in the central Andes paint intricate, colorful scenes of daily life on canvases made from animal hides. And if you learn only one thing during your trip, it will be that Panama hats don’t come from Panama — they come from Ecuador, where they’re woven out of incredibly fine fibers in coastal towns like Montecristi.
- Tianguez, Plaza de San Francisco, Quito,
One of the best stores for handicrafts in the country, featuring crafts from every region of Ecuador and an outdoor cafe. It’s run by a non-profit foundation that puts the proceeds back into local communities.
- Folklore Olga Fitsch, Colón 260, Quito
Set in the former house of a Hungarian-born crafts guru, this place is filled with gorgeous, pricey ceramics and textiles from all over the continent.
Recommended Indigenous Markets
- Otavalo, two hours north of Quito.
The granddaddy of them all. Popular with tourists. Saturday mornings.
- Saquisilí, two hours south of Quito.
Oriented more toward locals, including a spectacular animal market. Some crafts. Thursday mornings
Ecuador’s festivals come in many different flavors, from nationwide celebrations of famous battles for independence to small fiestas celebrated in a few tiny towns. Religious holidays combine solemn Catholic processions with alcohol-fueled indigenous harvest celebrations. A few of the more famous festivals are worth scheduling a visit around, including Santos Reyes and Santos Inocentes in San Lorenzo, the first week in January, and Cuenca’s Christmas processions.
Over the centuries, the indigenous Andean cultures have combined Catholic and Inca traditions into colorful celebrations, like those in late June around Otavalo, where the Inca festival of the summer equinox blends with the Christian celebrations of San Juan and San Pablo.
Major Public Holidays and Festivals
- New Year’s Day — A week of post-holiday festivities, including fireworks and dancing. 1 January.
- Carnival to Easter — The famous blowout followed by 40 days of penance. Solemn processions during Holy Week precede Easter Sunday. February/March.
- Corpus Cristi — Feasts, processions and dancing, especially in the central Andes. May/June.Simón Bolívar’s Birthday — Continent-wide celebration in memory of the general who liberated South America from Spain. 24 July.Discovery of the New World — Celebrates Columbus’s voyage, or (as the Dia de la Raza) the indigenous civilizations he opened to Western culture. 12 October.All Saints’ Day-All Souls’ Day — Indigenous families bring food, flowers, and offerings to the graves of loved ones. Also known as Day of the Dead. 1-2 November.
- Christmas Eve to New Year’s Eve — Everything from a midnight “Rooster’s Mass” and masquerades to the burning of political effigies. Late December mornings.
Being smack on the equator, Ecuador really has only two seasons: the hot and wet winter (“invierno“), and the cool, dry summer (“verano“). Temperatures often vary more within a single day than they do from season to season, making where you go just as important, if not more, than when.
In each region, the rainy season is usually also the sunniest, and the dry season is often overcast. The heights of the Andes seem to exist in a state of perpetual spring, with balmy days and chilly nights. A fleece jacket or sweater will do for the evenings (a down jacket is best for high altitudes), and don’t forget raingear for the October to May rainy season.
Daily downpours alternate with intense sunlight from January to April along the coast and western lowlands. The rest of the year the area is drier and usually cloudy. The Amazon, as you can probably guess, ranges from hot and wet to very hot and wet. Up to five meters of rain can fall in one spot during the rainiest season from June to August, most often in the form of brief, torrential afternoon downpours. September to December is driest. For both the coast and the Amazon, pack plenty of T-shirts and a trusted piece of raingear. Wherever you go, use sunscreen: the equatorial sun is amazingly powerful.
- By Plane
Most foreign visitors fly into Quito’s Mariscal Sucre International Airport. Flights from the U.S., routed through Miami or Houston, average around $700 round trip. Many major airlines connect South America with the U.S., Europe, and Asia. If you can’t get to Ecuador directly, you may find it cheaper to fly into Lima, Peru and travel overland.
- By Bus
Since international flights within South America are heavily taxed, country-hoppers usually prefer to cross borders by bus. International buses from Colombia (via Tulcán) or Peru (via Huaquillas or Macará) are comfortable and inexpensive — often under $50 from capital to capital.
But it’s even cheaper, and just as easy, to buy a ticket to the border, cross on foot, and pick up another bus on the other side, whichever direction you’re going. To bring your own car into Ecuador you’ll need your passport, driver’s license, and full registration papers in your own name.
- Most travelers to Ecuador take advantage of the inexpensive public bus network that ties together just about every town in the country. Most cities have a central terminal with buses leaving in every direction, and it’s possible to board or leave a coach anywhere along its route. Prices vary, depending on whether you’re riding an old North American school bus or a luxury overnighter, but average about $1 per hour (50 miles) or less.
- It’s possible to rent a car in Ecuador, but be prepared to pay as much or more per day than you would back home. Local drivers often disregard traffic laws, and most roads are poorly maintained — even the Panamerican Highway that runs down the center of the country can be more potholes than pavement in spots.
- Bicyclists have to deal with the same scary traffic concerns, as well as the country’s steep topography.
- Taxis are cheap ($2 or less to cross Quito), and can be rented by the hour or the day, making them a good alternative to renting a car.
- A few of the country’s venerable rail lines are still functioning, including the hair-raising switchbacks of the Devil’s Nose below Alausi, best experienced from the roof of the passenger cars. This scenic alternative is fading fast, though, so climb aboard soon while there’s still time.
Financial matters are seldom a problem, at least in the larger cities like Quito, Cuenca, and Guayaquil. In 2000, Ecuador became the first country in South America to switch over to the U.S. dollar, in an effort to stem mounting inflation. It will probably be a year or so before the greenback is accepted everywhere, but the transition seems to be flowing smoothly. Carry small bills in any case, and don’t expect your credit cards or traveler’s checks to be accepted very far outside the major cities.
In the meantime, major national and international banks have offices in Quito and Guayaquil where you can exchange money or have it wired to you. Their branches also have ATMs, though it’s sometimes a crapshoot whether or not one will accept your PLUS or Cirrus card on a particular day. The currency switch promises to make exchange houses like Producambios, Multicambios, and VAZ a thing of the past. Mastercard, Visa, and American Express all have offices in Quito.
- Banco de Guayaquil, Colón and Reina Victoria, Tel: 593-2-566-800
- Banco del Pacifico, Amazonas and Veintimilla, Tel: 593-2-437-537
- Citibank, Republica El Salvador and Naciones Unidas, Tel: 593-2-970-100
- Public telephones are available on street corners in major cities, and in offices of Andinatel, the national phone company, in almost every town. Many businesses and hotels will also let you make a local call for a small fee.
- The international code for calling Ecuador from the United States is 593, followed by the city/province code and the six-digit number. (The full sequence, then, counting the 011 for international calls, will have thirteen digits.)
- Post offices are also found in most towns, but service — especially international — is usually slow and questionable at best.
- The cyber revolution has swept Ecuador nearly off its feet. No fewer than eight Internet cafes can be found within a block of Calama and Juan Leon Mera in Quito’s New Town, and they’re popping up everywhere else almost as quickly. Access is $1 or less per hour, and most cafes have Internet telephone programs like Net2Phone that let you call overseas for a fraction the cost of normal calls.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
The most common health threat to visitors to Ecuador is travelers’ diarrhea, caused by contaminated food and water. Don’t eat anything that isn’t cooked, peeled, or washed, and drink only purified or boiled water or bottled drinks. Make sure your immunizations are up to date before going, and consider medicine for malaria, yellow fever, and typhoid if you plan on a long trip to remote areas. Don’t forget sunblock for the unforgiving equatorial sun, no matter where you go.
Ecuador’s slumping economy has caused a rise in petty crime, but you can stay safe by following a few basic precautions. Don’t bring anything irreplaceable in the first place, and carry only as much money as you need for a day and a photocopy of you passport on jaunts around town. Traveler’s checks are always a good idea, as is keeping an eye on valuables like cameras in crowded plazas and markets. Try to travel in groups whenever possible to popular but remote tourists spots like the volcanoes near the capital. The worst crime statistics in the country come from Quito’s New Town, popular with gringos, so take an inexpensive taxi there at night instead of walking.
VISAS AND OTHER OFFICIAL DOCUMENTS
Citizens of North America, Europe, and Australia don’t need a visa for stays of up to 90 days. Other travelers, and those looking to stay longer or work, should contact the Ecuadorian Embassy in Washington at 2535 15th Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20009, Tel: (202) 234-7166, fax (202) 265-9325, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or look at the Ecuadorian Embassy’s webpage ecuador.org. Ecuador also has consulates in New York City, Jersey City, Baltimore, Miami, Houston, New Orleans, Chicago, Beverly Hills, San Francisco, and Las Vegas, as well as in nine other countries.
Probably the best source of information on travel in Ecuador is the South American Explorers, who maintain a clubhouse in Quito at Jorge Washington 311 and Leonidas Plaza.
A one-year membership ($40 pp) gives access to the club’s vast bank of up-to-the-minute knowledge on travel in Ecuador and the rest of Latin America. They also have clubhouses in Ithaca, NY and Lima and Cuzco, Peru.
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