Ecuador

Because I’ve always wanted to…

Issue 58 / March 2024

Greetings,

Ecuador is certainly my personal favourite for families of all ages in South America. I am known to be obsessed by Brazil and very passionate about Colombia but Ecuador is all out on its own in so many ways.

Despite the recent madness near Guayaquil, which I am pleased to say was a local storm in a tea cup, Ecuador is a truly serene, cosy little gem of a country! It’s very easy to get around and whether you are visiting the colonial gems of Quito or the even more charming Cuenca, the primary rainforest of the Amazon tributary Napo river, the high mountainous areas of the famous Cotopaxi volcano or the unique, made famous by Darwin Galapagos islands, its diversity never ceases to bring heart-felt rewards. Seeing a Condor at Zuleta Lodge is something I will never forget.

As you can see from Nico’s enthusiastic report to follow, she agrees with all and more of the above!
Enjoy the journey!

Laterally yours, Nick, Helen, Nico, Jess and Maza

Ecuador explored, laterally

Ecuador may be one of the smallest nations in South America, but it’s a powerhouse of diversity, brimming with a rich tapestry of ecosystems, cultures, and must-see spots. Despite its modest area of 283,561 square kilometres (109,484 square miles), it offers a treasure trove of experiences for every kind of adventurer. Imagine scaling the heights of Cotopaxi Volcano, peaking at nearly 6,000 meters, or emulating David Attenborough amidst the untamed beauty of the Amazon Rainforest. Delve into the continent’s pre-Columbian history among the ruins of ancient Inca Palaces and witness the transformative impact of colonialism while meandering through Quito’s historic cobbled lanes and majestic cathedrals. Join the Andean gauchos on horseback in pursuit of the elusive condor across the highland plains, and cap off your journey lounging on the pristine shores of the Galapagos, amidst friendly sea lions.

Quito: Colonial jewel high in the Andes

Waking up in the charming town of Quito, one is greeted by a picturesque scene of domes and bell towers peeking through the mist that ascends between the valleys and towering peaks of the Andes, the very foundation of Quito. Situated at an impressive altitude of nearly 2,900 meters, Quito proudly holds the title of the second highest capital in the world, trailing only behind La Paz in Bolivia. This elevation becomes immediately (and painfully!) apparent as one explores the historic centre, navigating its winding streets and often steep hills.

Renowned for its impeccably preserved historic district, Quito boasts the largest and most authentically conserved old town in the Americas, making it one of two first centres to be honoured with UNESCO World Heritage status. This rich cultural heritage serves as a backdrop for leisurely strolls punctuated by stops at vibrant bars and restaurants offering delicious Andean cuisine.

Among the must-see attractions is the Casa del Alabado Pre-Columbian Art Museum, providing insight into the region’s rich indigenous heritage. Bask in the warm glow of the magnificent Iglesia de La Compañía de Jesús, completely adorned with gold leaf. Conclude your exploration with a visit to the former residence of the painter Oswaldo Guayasamín, where his legacy lives on in a showcase of his remarkable work.

Choosing the right hotel from the many options available can be overwhelming, yet Casa Gangotena Hotel stands out with its prime location overlooking Plaza San Francisco. It’s renowned for hosting one of the nation’s top restaurants and offering classic and impeccably restored rooms, securing its spot as our top pick in the city. Not far behind is the Illa Experience Hotel, which exudes a contemporary elegance with vibrant decorations and art that reflect Ecuador’s cultural variety. What sets it apart is its daily interactive experiences with local craftsmen, providing guests with a genuine insight into the area’s cultural heritage. For those seeking budget-friendly accommodations, Patio Andaluz and Casona de La Ronda are both conveniently situated and offer excellent value. Finally, La Palma Polo Club, located in the valleys below the city is a quick traffic-free drive away from the airport, making it the perfect choice for a logistical overnight.

The Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest

The Amazon Rainforest, the largest of its kind in the world, stretches across nine nations and covers an immense 6 million square kilometres. Home to no less than 10% of all known species on Earth, this region includes unique and threatened species of plants and animals. The Amazon River itself contributes between 15% and 16% of all freshwater flowing into the world’s oceans. The dense foliage that defines this natural wonder and draws in visitors for its untamed allure is also what renders much of it impenetrable. Within the confines of Ecuador, a lush 42,000 square miles of rainforest flourishes. Although it pales in comparison to Brazil’s vast expanses of jungle, Ecuador’s portion of the Amazon is bursting with biodiversity and offers a chance to witness the forest in its untouched, natural glory. Moreover, it’s easily reachable with just a brief flight and a boat journey from Quito, the nation’s capital.

Coca serves as the gateway to the Amazon adventures in Ecuador, nestled in the Oriente region where the Andean highlands cascade down to the Amazon basin’s rainforests, delineated by the grand Napo River. On a humid, sun-drenched afternoon, our journey began with a pickup from the small airport, followed by a drive to the riverbank. Here, we boarded motorized canoes, embarking towards our secluded lodge in the jungle. The voyage downstream, just over an hour, transported us into a different world of dense trees, overhead birds, and minimal human presence; we had reached the Yasuni National Park.

A typical day in Yasuni begins at sunrise or earlier, in order to take advantage of the cool morning hours when the rainforest’s animals are most active. Guided explorations are rich with insights into the rainforest’s complex web of life, including its plants, insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals. Visitors can ascend to a canopy platform perched 130 feet high in a cecropia tree for a bird’s-eye view of the forest. The day may be filled with canoe excursions, nature hikes, and cultural interactions with indigenous communities. As night falls, the rainforest reveals a different side, and guided walks with flashlights offer glimpses of nocturnal creatures rarely seen in daylight. These activities not only allow for a deeper connection with nature but also contribute to the conservation efforts by supporting sustainable tourism and local communities.

Nestled amidst primary rainforest, Sacha Lodge sits just two miles away from the Rio Napo and overlooks a serene, deep lake. Spanning 3,200 acres of pristine private reserve, the lodge offers extensive networks of footpaths and canoe trails for exploration. Renowned as one of the Amazon’s premier accommodations, Sacha Lodge boasts comfortable screened-in huts with thatched roofs crafted from local materials. Alternatively, travellers may opt for the Napo Wildlife Center EcoLodge, a meticulously constructed haven showcasing traditional Kichwa architecture and operated by the Añangu Indigenous Community. This jungle retreat features 20 private cabins adorned with indigenous artwork, offering unparalleled vistas of the jungle and the Añangu lagoon. Notably, the Napo Wildlife Center stands as a beacon of ecotourism excellence, with the community’s commitment evident in its environmental initiatives, arguably the most advanced in the Amazon.

Avenida de Los Volcanes: Cotopaxi

Named for its striking surroundings, the Avenue of the Volcanoes winds its way south from Quito, flanked by eight towering snow-capped peaks along the Andean range. Passing through a valley adorned with dense forests and tiny fields clinging to steep slopes, the route passes by a colourful array of traditional indigenous villages, hosting lively local markets on various days of the week. Additionally, scattered throughout the landscape are former estates bestowed upon conquistadors, now repurposed as charming countryside hotels. This region offers exceptional hiking opportunities, with trails leading to stunning crater lakes, often offering panoramic views of the majestic Chimborazo and Cotopaxi, the tallest peaks in the vicinity.

Imposing among the volcanic peaks is Cotopaxi, boasting a flawless cone shape and holding the title of the world’s highest active volcano: 5,897 m (19,347 ft). Nestled at its base lies Cotopaxi National Park, offering an ideal setting for overnight stays in local haciendas. From these historical accommodations, visitors can embark on hikes, cycling excursions, or horseback rides through the park’s diverse landscapes. A true gem nestled between Cotopaxi National Park and Riobamba is the stunning Quilotoa caldera lake. Gazing upon the topaz waters from the rim of the collapsed volcano is undoubtedly a highlight of any journey, and opportunities abound for hiking around the rim and kayaking across the blue-green waters.

Within this rugged landscape of high altitude steppas and icy peaks, the comforting crackle of roaring open fireplaces is a fitting conclusion to a day of exploration. Our favourite hacienda is undoubtedly San Agustin de Callo. Welcoming guests since the 15th century, this hacienda boasts a rich historical legacy. Situated on the grounds of an ancient Inca Palace dating back to 1440, commissioned by one of the final Inca emperors, the estate today preserves many original Inca stonework elements alongside colonial additions. Presently owned by the Plaza family, who boast two presidents in their family history, the hacienda operates as a working farm while offering an exclusive retreat for guests. Each room is uniquely adorned, featuring fireplaces and adorned with artwork by the Chilean artist Manuel Araya.

Otavalo Highlands

The cultural heart of the country beats loud in the highlands around the bustling market town of Otavalo. Here, the prosperous Otavaleño Indians attend its huge livestock, vegetable and textile market, a tradition dating back to pre-Incan times. Retaining much of its authentic charm, the town sees villagers flocking in traditional attire, with women adorned in embroidered blouses, headscarves (fachalinas), and beaded jewellery, while men sport long dark braids, ponchos, and felt hats. Surrounding the town there are snow-tipped volcanoes, lake-filled craters, rolling hills, cobbled lanes lined with silvery eucalyptus, and quaint villages specializing in cottage industries like weaving, embroidering and woodcarving.

Embrace the great outdoors by hiking through the hills to discover natural wonders like the twin-island crater lake of Cuicocha, with the majestic Cotacachi volcano looming in the distance, all visible from the scenic perimeter trail, or the 18-metre Peguche waterfall, considered sacred by villagers. Horseback riding and mountain biking also provide active and fun ways to experience the Andean great outdoors.

As a guest in a hacienda, you’ll have a taste of rural Andean life. Many of these estates, still family-owned, offer insight into the daily workings of a farm, accompanied by hearty home-cooked meals and warm hospitality. Whether you opt for visits to local villages, leisurely walks, bike rides, or horseback excursions, your days can be as active or relaxed as you desire, returning to the comfort of your hacienda at day’s end.

Just 20 minutes from Otavalo Market lies the tranquil oasis of Hacienda Cusin, a meticulously restored 17th-century estate adorned with impressive religious décor nodding to its Jesuit heritage. Standing out among Ecuador’s offerings is Hacienda Zuleta, a colonial-era working farm dating back to 1691, transformed into a family-run boutique hotel and owned for over a century by the family of former Ecuador President Galo Plaza Lasso. Meals are savoured family-style, prepared by local chefs using produce from Zuleta’s own organic farm, offering authentic Ecuadorian cuisine in a cozy setting. With hidden trails to explore on foot, bike, or horseback, opportunities to learn about endangered species at the Condor Huasi centre, and workshops in local crafts like embroidery and Ecuadorian cookery, there’s plenty to discover within and around the hacienda grounds, promising an enriching and memorable stay.

Cuenca

If you’re seeking a city in Ecuador that rivals Quito for its meticulously preserved historic district, look no further than Cuenca. Unlike the bustling energy of the capital, life in Cuenca flows at a more relaxed pace, with locals leisurely wandering along cobblestone streets flanked by picturesque townhouses, serene rivers, lush gardens, and vibrant squares.

A jaunt to the nearby El Cajas National Park offers an unforgettable journey through spectacular landscapes. Transitioning from Cuenca’s subtropical climate through cloud forests and into the rugged mountains, visitors are treated to a myriad of hiking trails. These trails provide ample opportunities to encounter a diverse array of wildlife, from Andean gulls to black frogs, and from vibrant hummingbirds to majestic condors. Exploring the virtually unknown sections of the Inca Trail located within the park, reveals a landscape that undergoes dramatic transformations, ranging from lush tropical forests to rugged peaks reminiscent of the windswept beauty of the Scottish Highlands.

Galapagos Islands

The Galápagos Islands, sit just a few hours’ flight from Ecuador’s coast. Emerging from the depths of the ocean as volcanic formations, these islands present a landscape of stark contrasts: from sun-drenched shores to mist-shrouded cliffs, and from twisted lava formations to sparse forests. Despite the seemingly inhospitable terrain, the Galápagos host an extraordinary diversity of wildlife, including trusting bird species, resilient reptiles, and an abundance of marine life, to the delight of visitors from Darwin onwards.

As someone who has spent considerable time on African safaris, approaching wildlife-focused travel with a hint of scepticism is natural. How could anything rival the grandeur of the African bush? Yet, the Galápagos Islands offer a unique perspective, thanks to the fearless curiosity of their inhabitants. Wildlife here, unaccustomed to fearing humans, view the occasional two-legged visitor as merely an entertaining addition to their pristine environment. Every moment presents an opportunity for interaction: from playful mockingbirds perching on explorers’ heads to sea lion pups seeking companionship during snorkelling excursions, and even pods of dolphins trailing kayakers through the blue waters.

For those seeking to explore the Galápagos Islands extensively, embarking on a cruise around the archipelago is the optimal choice. The Integrity Yacht presents options for 7 to 14-day cruises, renowned not only for its elegant design but also for its exceptional guides, among the finest in the archipelago. Alternatively, the Elite Cruise offers equally spacious cabins and amenities, with shorter 4-day itineraries available. Both vessels accommodate a maximum of 16 passengers, ensuring an intimate and personalized experience.

For travellers who prefer terra firma, Galapagos Safari Camp offers delightful under canvas accommodations and daily boat excursions to nearby uninhabited islands. Pikaia Lodge provides a similarly comprehensive activity program but in a more luxurious and contemporary setting. Finally, Finch Bay Hotel stands out as the premier hotel choice boasting direct beach access—a perfect conclusion to your journey, allowing for well-deserved relaxation by the sea.

Up Periscope
Fundu Lagoon, Pemba Island, Tanzania

Nestled in the southwest corner of Pemba Island lies Fundu Lagoon, a peaceful retreat accessible only by boat. This secluded gem offers a rare glimpse into a simpler way of life, far removed from the hustle and bustle of modernity. Pemba Island, known as the ‘Spice Island’, remains largely undeveloped, preserving its natural beauty and charm. Here, you’ll encounter a variety of wildlife, from playful bush babies and flying foxes to curious vervet monkeys. And beneath the crystal-clear waters, a vibrant underwater world awaits, home to dolphins, tuna, and colourful coral reefs.

At Fundu Lagoon, you’ll experience laid-back luxury at its finest. With four unique bars offering a relaxed atmosphere and delicious cocktails, you can unwind and soak in the views of the Indian Ocean. The resort’s spacious tented rooms provide a comfortable retreat, complete with ocean views and thatched roofs. For those seeking adventure beneath the waves, the resort’s PADI dive centre offers courses and equipment for divers of all levels. Explore the island’s pristine waters, from shallow reefs to dramatic drop-offs, and discover the beauty that lies beneath the surface.

But what truly sets Fundu Lagoon apart is the sense of exclusivity and seclusion it offers. With its remote location and limited number of guests, you’ll feel as though you have the entire ocean to yourself as you set out to discover Pemba’s hidden treasures.

Comment

This post doesn't have any comment. Be the first one!

hide comments
...

This is a unique website which will require a more modern browser to work!

Please upgrade today!