When you think of Ecuador, you think of the Galapagos Islands. The harsh volcanic terrain populated by fearless yet docile animals certainly does create a memorable image; living dinosaurs that demonstrate the power and visibility of evolution, just as Darwin experienced in the 1800’s. And while there is no doubt that the Galapagos is the crowning jewel in travel to Ecuador, it is by no means the only highlight this magical country has to offer. For years, mainland Ecuador has been overshadowed by the magnificence of its famous islands, making it easy to forget that this relatively small country is home to an incredible natural diversity. Where else can you visit the Amazon rainforest, the Andes Mountains, innumerable volcanoes, pacific beaches, and colonial cities, all in a few days’ time? Take a look at some of the less-visited destinations of mainland of Ecuador, offering countless adventures and discoveries, without the crowds found in many other destinations, and just try to resist buying your plane tickets now.
Ecuador is truly el mitad del mundo, or the middle of the world, geographically and culturally. A place where you can take a day trip from the capital to visit the line of the equator running through the center of earth and Otavalo, a market town home to thriving ancient artisan traditions. Here, you can find textiles in every imaginable color, as well as carvings, jewelry, and Panama hats, which are not from Panama at all, but are part of an Ecuadorian weaving tradition with UNESCO cultural heritage status.
Ecuador also has one of the best train networks in South America following years of careful restoration, allowing travelers a unique way to see wide swathes of the picturesque countryside, from the comfort of an authentic steam engine. The experiences gained by traversing the Andean range that cuts through the center of Ecuador focus on cultural interactions with indigenous communities that were fairly isolated before the train’s operation. Meet Balthasar Uschua, who practices the historic profession of harvesting glacial ice off of the side of the Chimborazo volcano. Since the popularization of refrigerators, the occupation has been in decline, and Balthasar is one of the last to still practice it.
A few hours east, you enter an entirely new environment. Fly into Coca and take to the water of the Napo River, a tributary of the Amazon. A few hours later jungle lodges appear along the secluded shores, and high-end river cruises quietly float among swooping, brightly colored macaws and leaping piranhas in one of the most biodiverse corners of the earth.
Head south to Cuenca to experience colonial charm in this quaint city. Cuenca is set in the bowl of the Andes, and is known as a haven for American expats and retirees looking for pleasant weather and a premium quality of life in a budget-friendly landscape. The 16th century historical center is perfectly strollable, with mountain vistas in the distance and Republican facades lining the sunny streets. As one of the world’s largest exporters of cut flowers (especially roses), the flower markets here are a treat for the senses.
Ecuador’s mainland offers hidden delights and pleasant surprises in equal measure. As a stand-alone destination, or in combination with the Galapagos, it is worth adding the diverse landscapes and experiences of Ecuador to your bucket list immediately.