Ecuador’s big draw is the Galapagos Islands, a one-of-a-kind wildlife wonderland, scattered more than 600 miles off its Pacific coast. This compact country combines the Andes, Amazon, beaches and perfectly preserved colonial cities. Quito, its high-altitude capital, is the entry point and its Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Following the city’s multimillion dollar restoration programme, it’s worth spending a couple of nights here. Start with a walking tour of the Old Town, a maze of picturesque cobbled plazas and steep narrow streets, where stylish boutique hotels, restaurants and cafes are opening up in renovated mansions. It’s home to some of the finest museums in South America, including the Central Bank Museum, but if there’s only time for one of its magnificent churches, make it La Compania de Jesus with its stunning baroque interior, covered with intricate carvings and dazzling gold leaf. Cobbled Calle la Ronda has been turned into a showcase for Ecuadorian crafts: pick up an authentic Panama hat from Homero Ortega & Sons. Quito’s new town has also had a facelift and La Mariscal’s Plaza Foch has been transformed into a lively square, packed with bars and restaurants to suit every budget. Straddle the equator at La Mitad del Mundo and for a bird’s-eye view of the city, take a ride on the Teleferico that climbs to 4,000 metres.
This isolated archipelago of around 19 islands and many smaller islets is a unique and fragile ecosystem best explored by boat. Most cruises go ashore twice a day and you can expect to visit three or four islands, each with its own varied landscape and wildlife, including colonies of blue-footed boobies and frigate birds. Accompanied by naturalist guides, you’ll walk on marked trails, hike up hillsides, and swim, snorkel and explore the coastline by panga, kayak and glass-bottomed boat. Among the most commonly visited islands are Santa Cruz, where you can learn about the island’s natural history and visit the giant tortoise-breeding programme at the Charles Darwin Research Centre, and Isabela Island, home to large and colourful Galapagos land iguanas. Then there’s Fernandina, the archipelago’s youngest island, with a large population of marine iguanas, alongside sea lions, penguins and flightless cormorants, and Floreana Island’s Cormorant Point lagoon, where greater flamingos, sandpipers and herons, among other species, gather and sea turtles nest from December to May.
SECOND TIME AROUND
Head north to the highlands to discover beautiful haciendas backed by volcanoes, colourful markets and high Andean passes, perfect for hiking, biking and horse riding. On Saturday, Otavalo market sells some of the finest textiles and handicrafts in South America. The wildlife-rich Mindo cloud forest is full of birds, orchids and butterflies, or a short plane hop from Quito to Coca followed by a boat ride will take you into the rainforest for a stay at a wildlife lodge.