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Ecuador is rich in cultural splendour, a highlight of any visit. Quito, the capital and Cuenca, lying further south, are both UNESCO World Heritage centres, set in the high, central Andean region, blessed with picture-postcard colonial churches, imposing mansions, grand piazzas and quaint cobbled backstreets. Pre-Colombian artefacts date back to Inca times and earlier, readily on show in Ecuador’s many museums and historical sites. Ecuador’s population of just over 15 million people is mostly of mixed European and indigenous descent, known locally as ‘mestizos’. Colourful, traditional dress is commonplace around Quito and surrounding areas, and along the impressive ‘Avenue of Volcanoes’, linking Quito to Cuenca. Quito also serves as a gateway to nearby cloud forest areas and to the Amazonian region to the East, known as the ‘Oriente’. The region is extensive in size, occupying around 40% of the overall land mass and is divided into two areas, the Northern and the Southern Oriente. The latter
is wilder and less easily accessible than its Northern neighbour. To the West, the Pacific coastal region, is dotted with resort towns, fishing villages, surfing hotspots, a marine National Park and Ecuador’s largest city, Guayaquil, a popular gateway to the Galapagos archipelago.The Galapagos Islands are Ecuador’s best-known and most popular visitor attraction, preeminent among the World’s wildlife destinations. A group of volcanic islands, located over 600 miles from the Ecuadorian mainland, the archipelago’s relative isolation has allowed the unhindered development of many, unique wildlife species, many found nowehere else. The discovery of the
islands in 1835 by naturalist, Charles Darwin, was to later inspire his
groundbreaking theory of evolution.
A. Galapagos Islands. A series of 19 main islands, home to a fascinating collection of unique animals and birds including giant tortoises, sea lions, land iguanas, marine iguanas, killer whales, flamingos, blue-footed boobies and albatross, none of which are deterred by the presence of human visitors, allowing for close interaction. Access to the islands is by air from the mainland. There are two airports at Isla Baltra and Isla San Cristobal. Cruising is the only means by which to explore the islands. Options range from small yachts to luxurious ships offering itineraries ranging in duration from just one day up to seven nights or longer. Hotel accommodation is also available on the main islands.
B. Quito & the Northern Highlands. Ecuador’s capital city, located in a valley in the centre of the northern Andean mountain region, lying in the midst of a green valley, overlooked by the dramatic Chichincha volcano, Quito’s setting has few equals. At 2,580 metres in altitude, it is South America’s second highest capital city. The focal point is the ancient colonial centre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, rich in 17th-century churches, convents, chapels and monasteries, thoroughfares and plazas, centred upon the Plaza Grande. Overlooking the city is Cerro Panecillo with its winged statue of the Virgin Mary. Quito lies at the head of the ‘Avenue of Volcanos’, stretching southwards through the central valley, encompassing the volcanic peak and Parque Nacional of Cotopaxi, the spa town of Banos and the market town of Riobamba, sitting in the shadow of the country’s highest peak, Chimborazo. To the north of Quito lies the indigenous settlement of Otavalo, famous for its market and to the West, the Cloud forest region of Bellavista and the township of Mindo, a haven for bird-watchers and hikers.
C. Cuenca & the Southern Highlands. Cuenca lies at the southern tip of the ’Avenue of Volcanos’. Ecuador’s most beautiful colonial city, with UNESCO World Heritage status, harbours a well-preserved, 16th-century colonial heart. The city provides the gateway to the Southern Highland region, the new-age settlement of Vilcabamba and the Parque Nacional Cajas, adjacent to Cuenca and Podocarpus, located to the South-East. The latter is an extensive and remote area of intense biodiversity with rare birds, mammals and plant life. The aforementioned Parque Nacional Cajas is an area of cool, moorland- like, high altitude grassland and conservation area, popular with hikers.
D. The Pacific Coast. Ecuador’s long sandy coastline stretches from little-visited Esmeraldas in the North to the Peruvian border in the deep South. The northern part of the region is the centre of the country’s Afro-Ecuadorian population, evident in the local music and cuisine. the coastline is strewn with vibrant, uncommercialised beach resorts and settlements including largely unspoilt Mompiche and the surfing haven of Canoa. Further south, the coastline juts out into the Pacific taking in Parque Nacional Machalila and Isla de la Plata, the poor man’s Galapagos. To the East lies Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city and commercial hub and airline gateway to the Galapagos Islands.
E. The Oriente. A vast and remote Amazonian rainforest region, lying to the East of the central Andean highlands and fed by numerous rivers making their way down to the Amazon basin. With good connections from Quito, Papallacta, Tena and Coca, the northern part of the region has the best access to the dense jungles and waterways that lie beyond. Populated mostly by indigenous peoples, the area in and around Parque Nacional Yasuni is rich in biodiversity, with many jungle lodges and reserves located around the Lower Rio Napo settlements of Anangu and Panatocha. The southern Oriente is accessible from Macas, adjacent to Parque Nacional Sangay.