In a world seemingly smaller all the time, South America invokes a sense of adventure and mystique. Home to vibrant, cosmopolitan cities with their own emerging cultures and savoir-faire, the continent is a treasure trove of natural wonders includes the wettest and driest places on earth, the world’s largest river, rainforest, mountain range, and salt flats. This is a lot for a continent with just 12 countries!
While several South American countries have been on the tourism radar for some time, and others such as, Bolivia, and Ecuador, have, for the most part been bypassed. Statistics from Worlddata.info help paint the picture. In 2018, Brazil, Chile, and Argentina had between six and seven million tourists each, Peru and Colombia welcomed four million, yet Ecuador and Bolivia saw just 2.5 and 1million tourists, respectively. But with abundant opportunities for cultural engagement and visits to local communities, ample wildlife, budding international food scenes, fewer tourists and best of all, authenticity, Ecuador and Bolivia will soon be stepping into the spotlight with their siblings.
In this first of our two-part story, we will uncover enigmatic Ecuador, likely to soon be emerging as one of South America’s most sought-after destinations in the world,
Mainland Ecuador has historically been used as a quick add-on enroute to the Galapagos but for it for its size, Ecuador certainly packs a punch given its home to both the verdant Amazon Rainforest and diverse Galapagos. Add in the world’s highest active volcano, Cotopaxi, cloud forests, Andean villages untouched by time, and paradisiac beaches, and suddenly you have a recipe for one all-out adventure!
Sitting high above the Andean foothills, Quito, the highest capital city in the world at 9,350 feet (2,800 meters), boasts one of one of the largest and best-preserved historic centers anywhere in the America. With its storybook plazas and cobblestone lanes lined with colonial mansions and haciendas, it is easy to understand why it is a UNESCO World Cultural Center. La Ronda Street, considered to be the oldest in the city, is still home to time-honored trade stores owned by the same families for generations.
Like Lima before it, today Quito is a rising culinary destination. Ecuadorian chefs are training in the US or Europe before returning home and adding their personal flair to the already distinct melting pot of flavors that include native, African, and Spanish ingredients. Aside from a burgeoning haute cuisine renaissance, Quito enjoys a thriving street food scene as well. For a truly authentic experience, join the locals in the late afternoon at Mercado de las Tripas, or look for one of the ever-increasing food trucks that serve pretty much everything including a gluten-free option for hamburgers and tacos made with plantains.
While Quito is just the beginning to whet your palette; there is far more to explore in Ecuador. A visit to Cuenca is a must and getting there is half the fun! Cotopaxi National Park is the perfect place to start. With magnificent views of the snow-capped volcano, the park is another great example of the country’s abundant flora and fauna and offers an opportunity to see the majestic Andean Condor. Following an overnight in Riobamba, visit one of the local markets, among the most energetic and colorful in region before boarding the Ecuador’s famed Devil’s Nose Railway. Considered to be one of the world’s most spectacular train rides, the “Nariz del Diablo” is a breathtaking, three-hour journey through the Andes towards Cuenca.
Cuenca, yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site, is Ecuador’s third largest city and likely its most beautiful, attracting a large community of expats and creatives. Wooing with undeniable charm, cobblestoned streets, striking colonial architecture and picture-perfect postcard plazas, you’ll be hard-pressed to find reasons not to fall in love with it.
The town also is one of Ecuador’s most extraordinary, in both historic and archaeological terms, with artifacts found dating back as far as 8000 BC. During the Incan period, Cuenca was named, Tomebamba, and was considered the second Cusco. Legend has it, the great Incan city was covered in gold but destroyed by the locals after hearing of the Spanish conquests. The destruction of the city led the Spanish conquerors to believe the city may have been the mythical city of El Dorado.
While Cuenca is the ideal spot to venture further into southern Ecuador, the Gualaceo Valley to the East is another of the country’s hidden gems. In addition to wonderful opportunities for cloud forest hikes, you’ll visit the small towns and villages that dot the landscape, each specializing in their own artistries. Sigsig, for example, is known for growing and preparing the straw used in making Panama Hats – which actually originated in Ecuador. San Bartolome is famed for handmade guitars, while Bulcay uses a traditional method of tie-dyed weaving to create the country’s finest shawls and scarves. And at the center is Gualaceo itself, grower of peaches and orchids, and host to a popular market on Fridays and Sundays that is a “must-see.”
From Cuenca, your next decision might be cloud forest or rainforest. Either way, a quick flight back to Quito from Cuenca will get you where you’re headed.
If your choice is cloud forest, Mindo and the Mashpi Rainforest Biodiversity Reserve is the place to be. The region is known for its spectacular display of nature counting over 500 species of birds, and nearly 200 varieties of orchids. Mindo is a backpackers’ haven and exudes charm in spades with the aroma of locally grown chocolate and coffee usually wafting through air. Activities like hiking, ziplining, waterfall treks, and chocolate making abound as well. In recent years, the Mashpi Lodge outside of Mindo has gained a good deal of attention for its unique construction and conservation efforts while also presenting numerous ecological activities as part of a stay.
The Yasuní National Park and Amazon Rainforest, one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet, offer more awe-inspiring adventures still. The park, located in the basins of several rivers that feed the Napo River, which itself flows into the Amazon, is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve covering 2.5 million acres (9820 sq. kms). Several lodges devoted to conservation provide ample opportunities through jungle hikes and canoe trips to see the abundant array of indigenous flora and fauna, some that pre-date human history and are not found anywhere else on the planet. Pumas and jaguars are just two of its shadowy residents you might encounter (safely!) on your treks. One of Yasuní’s most-amazing surprises is that it is home to two uncontacted tribes who live in complete isolation from the outside world.
Ecuador has no real seasons given that it straddles the equator, but it does have a wet and a dry season. December to June being the former, and July to November the latter. Contact The Evolved Traveler to book your experience to this emerging destination and be sure to check out the next issue of evoke for part two of our story, emerging Bolivia!