Nature and culture thrive in South America’s northwest jewel of Ecuador. An astounding array of habitats beckons explorers to discover prehistoric creatures on pristine islands, horse riding under highland volcanoes and vivid rainforests teeming with tropical life. Join us on our journey to unearth wildlife, pre-Colombian Incan relics and Spanish colonial gems in this land of haciendas, vaqueros and unwavering Andean spirit..
Quito – A Restored Colonial Jewel
The highest capital in the world, Quito is nestled in the Andes at 10,000 feet above sea level. The city’s centro histórico (old town), with its narrow cobblestone streets and beautifully preserved colonial architecture, is a picturesque gateway to the country. Plaza de la Independencia, known locally as La Plaza Grande, has served as Quito’s hub since the 1500s when Spanish settlers—fearing that Incas might poison the water supply—built a protected well here. Commemorating the country’s independence from Spain, the plaza is an ideal point from which to begin exploring. Start with the 16th-century cathedral and the Moorish-influenced Presidential and Archbishop’s Palaces surrounding the square. Follow that with a visit to La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús. Lavished with gold and colonial art, the Jesuit church is masterpiece of Spanish Baroque architecture.
For a taste of Quito’s culture, seek out Calle de la Ronda, a romantic passageway that beckons with shops, galleries, street artisans, and bustling cafés and eateries. In the evening, quiteños, as inhabitants of Quito are called, stroll this charming corridor to the sounds of Ecuadorian folk music and the aromas of traditional foods. Stop for some empanadas and hot canelazo, a customary Andean alcoholic beverage spiced with cinnamon that locals drink to keep warm in the chilly mountain air.
Quito – Pre-Colombian Art & Culture
Quito’s rich artistic and cultural heritage is on display at a remarkable assortment of museums. The newest venue on the scene, the Casa del Alabado garnered much acclaim when it opened in 2010. Housed in a late 17th-century villa, the space was renovated and transformed into a gallery showcasing an extraordinary private collection of pre-Columbian Ecuadorian art. The treasure trove of about 500 pieces is creatively assembled in groupings that correspond to the three levels of the world as envisioned by the indigenous Andean people: the Upper (the sphere of divine and heroic beings), the Middle (the human and material world) and the Under (the domain of the creators). The Casa’s 15 art-filled rooms transport visitors to the spiritual realm of ancient Ecuador, exploring themes including human duality, shamanism and power. Special presentations on the last Friday of the month feature dance groups, choirs and guest artists.
Cotopaxi National Park – Rumbling Giant in the Avenue of the Volcanoes
One of the world’s highest active volcanoes, Mt. Cotopaxi occupies 19,347 feet (5,897 meters) of vertical space and attracts climbing enthusiasts from around the globe. Its profile—an almost-perfect cone rising atop the wide páramo (highland plateau) —can be see all the way from Quito, 60 miles to the north. Although a volcano ascent is optional for those in climbing condition, the national park where it dwells offers other outdoor pursuits such as hiking, riding and mountain biking through terrain evoking the beauty of the Scottish moors. Dedicated to protecting native species including llamas, pumas, bears, highland wolves, wild horses and the Andean condor, Cotopaxi National Park also features ruins from an Inca military fortress. For a place to call home in the area, the Hacienda San Agustín de Callo outside the park limits is a gem. Its Incan heritage and cozy colonial character come with fishing, trekking and riding tours, plus forays to nearby market towns like Saquisilí. The Hacienda’s delicious high Andean cuisine is the perfect end to a busy day exploring.
Zuleta, Imbabura Province – Colonial Farm in the Highlands
Situated between the snow-capped Cayambe and Cotacachi volcanoes two hours north of Quito, Hacienda Zuleta resides on over 4,000 acres of sweeping highland pastures, forests and fields—and 300 years of history. Once the home of former Ecuadorian President Galo Plaza Lasso (1948–1952), the estate invites guests to experience life on a working colonial farm and indulge in the bounty of the land. With a threefold mission to minimize environmental impact, foster sustainability and support the community, Zuleta includes a creamery, a dairy farm, organic gardens and an embroidery shop run by a women’s community cooperative. Riding enthusiasts can choose from 15 different programs featuring the ranch’s unique Zuleteño horse, a mixture of Andalusian, English and Quarter horses, bred and trained by local vaqueros (cowboys). Explore the property’s ancient earth mounds, visit its Andean condor rehabilitation project and trek highland forests and trails by horse, foot or bicycle. At the end of the day, relax on the patio before feasting on an Andean dinner replete with food produced right on the farm. Afterwards, retire in front of the fireplace or in the library to soak up the history of the hacienda under grand portraits of the Plaza Lasso family.
Yasuni National Park – Eco-Adventure in the Jungle
Because the Galapagos Islands take center stage, Ecuador’s vibrant Amazon region is often overlooked by nature-lovers. The Napo Wildlife Center is reason enough to add a trip to the Amazon to your itinerary. Owned and operated by the indigenous Añangu population, the center’s mission is to ensure that the community’s lifestyle, traditions and beliefs remain intact. The Amazonian eco-village exudes peaceful majesty far removed from modern conveniences like planes, cars and air-conditioning. In fact, the only way to get there is by canoe from Coca, located in the far east of the country. As civilization melts away, glide past a cornucopia of flora and fauna on the Napo River to enter a world of vivid splendor. Set on a hillside overlooking Añangu Lagoon, the center comprises 15 traditional native structures, built entirely from materials transported by boat, foot and canoe. Venture out with local guides by day to visit an indigenous village; marvel at parrot and macaw “clay licks,” where hundreds of birds gather to eat clay on exposed riverbanks; or observe the incredible world of monkeys, jaguars, sloths, tapirs and giant otters plus over 500 species of birds from the vast jungle observation platform. By night, take a canoe ride under a canopy of stars and enjoy an unforgettable jungle concert of frogs and cicadas. There isn’t a manmade performance hall like it.
Galapagos Islands – Incredible Open-Air Aquarium
Boasting an astounding array of marine life, the Galapagos Archipelago off the coast of Ecuador is without a doubt the main draw of the country. The 20 volcanic islands are home to penguins, sea lions, giant tortoises, iguanas, lava lizards and birds that were pivotal in shaping Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection following his discovery of the islands in 1835. As a protected habitat and World Heritage Site, Galapagos National Park strictly monitors human impact on its delicate environment. The park coordinates and regulates all itineraries, vessels, landing sites, operator licenses and the number of visitors, and insists that certified naturalist guides accompany all tours. While land-based hotel tours allow scheduling flexibility and more time on the main islands, pre-determined cruise itineraries visit more sites and are the only means to access the more remote islands. Choose from budget, mid-range and luxury cruises that include hiking and fishing, or world-class snorkeling and diving excursions that submerge you in a colorful aquatic world teeming with whales, sharks, giant mantas, sting rays and tuna.