You don’t have to be under an umbrella at the beach or on a cruise to the Galapagos to get a feel for the real Ecuador. You merely have to get out of Dodge (in this case, Quito), let your mind wander and allow the diverse experiences of Ecuador wash over you. Where else in the world can you hit the healing waters of a mountainside spa, the mangroves of a jungle oasis and the heritage of a traditional hacienda all in one trip? Nowhere, that’s where.
Get your head in the clouds
Off in the distance or staring you in the face, the Andean Highlands are a marvel, running north-south straight through the country. The region is a jumble of glacial mountaintops, high plains and valleys, quaint communities and four different chains of volcanoes, many of them active.
In the town of Otavalo, visitors wander through the largest outdoor market in South America, taste-test local foods and examine the renowned handmade cloth, maybe even popping into a weaver’s workshop. Tradition runs deep here. Nearby Hacienda Pinsaqui, a historic heritage home has been welcoming guests since 1790, including South America’s saviour Simón Bolívar and art legend Frida Kahlo. Seven generations in the same family, the hacienda’s rich history and warm hospitality are evident at every turn, including the trophy-filled Equestrian Bar, the only original part of the house left standing after the 1868 earthquake.
“Take the waters” in spa town
Baños in south-central Ecuador has two different reputations: as both a spa town and an adventure hub, two hats it wears very well. It is located in the foothills of the Tungurahua volcano, which has been known to erupt from time to time. And thanks to the volcano, the mineral-rich hot springs make Baños a mecca for spa-goers – and there are plenty to choose from. Treat yourself to a relaxing massage after a day of hiking, but be sure to visit the public baths at some point to get a real feel for the town, taking the waters with the townspeople.
Adventure sports like paragliding, canyoneering, rafting, kayaking and ziplining top the list of offerings at many of the tour companies within and just outside Baños. Young tourists and locals also flock here to take advantage of the hilltop hikes through the region’s vast national parkland.
This tourist town actually has a third hat: as a Roman Catholic religious centre. There is a waterfall in town where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared, an event which still has people making a pilgrimage to it throughout the year.
Carve out quality city time.
You very likely begin and end your journey in the capital city of Quito, which, like other large centres, is made up of little neighbourhoods, each with its own unique essence. The churches, museums and heritage buildings of Old Town are a no-brainer to check out (weekends tend to be more crowded). La Marsical comes alive at the end of the workday, when the younger crowd heads to the bars and restaurants near Plaza Foch. Calle de la Ronda is good for a traditional Ecuadorian light snack and a few glasses of wine at cocktail hour.
Regarding the cuisine, the traditional food is both reasonably priced and delicious: fried chicken, grilled fish and churrasco beef sit alongside fried potatoes, flavoured rice or deep-fried plantain. Challenge your taste buds by braving the street food; pick the stalls that have a crowd around them. Remember that regardless of how unappetizing something might sound – i.e. the above-mentioned beetle larvae – you might enjoy it quite a lot. And if you don’t, at least you have a story to tell when you get home.
Go when it suits you best.
Happily, you can visit Ecuador all year round, with two seasons offering different environments: The green season months from December to May are the wettest, but they are also the warmest. June to November is the dry season, which tends to be cooler and less crowded.