Ecuador's varied landscapes, biodiversity, culture, and natural beauty combine to make it a world-class destination for everything from bird-watching to sport fishing, from scuba diving to white-water rafting. Outdoor outfitters take full advantage of the country's diversity: For example, horseback-riding tours include stays in colonial haciendas; mountain-biking excursions stop at indigenous markets; and a golf course doubles as a bird-watching garden.
The fact that Ecuador's ocean, islands, mountains, forests, rivers, lakes, and beaches are packed into a relatively small territory allows travelers to sample an array of outdoor activities on a single trip. This section lays out the options, lists the best tour operators for each activity, and provides an overview of the country's national parks and protected areas. I've also listed some volunteer programs and other options for those who want to contribute to the preservation of the country's natural treasures.
This section describes the best places to participate in a given sport or activity, and lists tour operators and outfitters. If you want to focus on only one active sport during your stay in Ecuador, these companies are your best bets for quality equipment and knowledgeable service.
Adventure activities and ecotourism inherently carry risks and dangers, which vary according to the sport. Over the years, there have been deaths and dozens of minor injuries from white-water rafting and mountain climbing, which is why I include only the most reputable companies here. If you have any doubt about the safety of the guide, equipment, or activity, opt out. Moreover, know your limits and abilities, and don't exceed them.
During the dry months, the Andes and Pacific coast provide excellent camping conditions. Camping is allowed in many of the country's protected areas, but infrastructure is largely lacking and access is often difficult. Outdoor outfitters offer tours that include overnights in tents, usually at the end of a day of hiking, biking, horseback riding, or white-water rafting.
Safari Ecuador (tel. 02/2552-505; www.safari.com.ec) runs a series of African-style safaris in the Andean paramo using 4WD vehicles. In addition to high-altitude camping, activities include day hikes and horseback riding easy enough to be appropriate for families. Expeditions last anywhere from 2 days to 2 weeks.
Surtrek (tel. 866/978-7398 in the U.S. and Canada, or 02/2231-534 in Ecuador; www.surtrek.com), one of the country's biggest adventure and eco-tour companies, offers various Andes and Amazon hiking tours that include the option of camping.
The canopy tour -- an activity that involves gliding along steel cables between platforms perched high in trees -- was invented in Costa Rica, but has spread to other countries, Ecuador among them. It is estimated that some two-thirds of the tropical rainforest's species live in the canopy (the uppermost, branching layer of the forest), and biologists who pioneered study of that biodiversity developed some of the techniques now used in canopy tours. Nevertheless, the tours are more about adrenaline rushes than about observing or learning about wildlife.
Mindo Canopy Adventure (tel. 09/4530-624; www.mindocanopy.com) is one of the best zip-line operations in the country, with 13 different cables strung through the beautiful forests around Mindo.
Most of Ecuador's cruising options are centered in the Galápagos, where dozens of yachts and catamarans offer 1- to 2-week tours to the archipelago's attractions. These cruises are focused on the fascinating fauna, and most offer the option of snorkeling or scuba diving, whereas some boats cater exclusively to scuba divers.
Galacruises Expeditions (tel. 02/250-9007; www.galacruises.com) has five boats in the Galápagos, ranging from older, less-expensive yachts to luxury catamarans. They can also book Galápagos cruises on various other vessels.
Linblad Expeditions (tel. 800/397-3348 in the U.S. and Canada; www.expeditions.com), a luxury-oriented agency committed to environmental protection, offers first-class Galápagos cruises with highly trained naturalist guides on the National Geographic Explorer, the National Geographic Islander, and the National Geographic Polaris. Their 10-day program costs $4,740 to $8,120 (£3,160-£5,413) per person.
Metropolitan Touring (tel. 02/2988-200; www.galapagosvoyage.com) offers Galápagos cruises on three privately owned luxury ships. They also offer the option of pairing a cruise with time at their Finch Bay Hotel, on Santa Cruz Island, or with an array of packages on the mainland.
The rustic Manatee Amazon Explorer (tel. 02/2448-985; www.manateeamazonexplorer.com) runs 3-, 4-, and 7-night eco-cruises on the Napo River, the Amazon tributary where Francisco de Orellana began his journey that led to the big river's discovery. Accommodations are snug, but the guides and itinerary are first-class. The cruise includes daily boat trips up smaller rivers and hikes into the rainforest where you are likely to see everything from wooly monkeys to blue and gold macaws.
Tauk (tel. 800/788-7885 in the U.S. and Canada; www.tauck.com) is a soft-adventure company catering to higher-end travelers. They offer various Galápagos cruises, including a family package, and an add-on to package to Peru.
Hang Gliding & Paragliding
Hang gliding and paragliding are popular from the mountains above Quito -- namely, Pichincha -- and the cliffs above Canoa and the tiny town of Crucita, both on the Manabí coast. While experienced pilots should be happy with the conditions, novices can also try the paragliding on a tandem flight, which can provide an unforgettable, bird's-eye view of the coast or highlands.
The Belgian-owned operator Terranova Trek (tel. 02/2253-327; www.terranovatrek.com) offers tandem flights in the Quito area, advice, transportation, and support for pilots with their own gear, various paragliding courses, and a package tour for experienced pilots that includes flights in both the mountains and on the coast, as well as visits to national parks and other attractions. Tandem flights cost just $40 (£27), whereas the 16-day tour costs $1,440 (£960).
Parapente Crucita (tel. 05/2340-334; www.parapentecrucita.com), in the paragliding mecca of Crucita, has a hostel and flight school, rents equipment, provides transportation to the bluffs, and offers 10-minute tandem flights for $20 (£13). A 5-day paragliding course costs $350 (£233).
Ecuador has a limited spa selection, but those that are listed here feature such unusual extras as hummingbird gardens, lush cloud forests, or the opportunity to complement massages and other treatments with outdoor activities.
Arasha Resort (tel. 02/2449-881; www.arasharesort.com) is sequestered in the cloud forest near Mindo, about 2 hours from Quito. It offers an array of stress-relieving therapies as well as a lot of exposure to soothing Mother Nature.
Hotel Termas de Papallacta (tel. 02/2568-989; www.papallacta.com.ec), on the eastern slope of the Andes, is an hour from Quito. This hotel and hot springs offers an affordable spa experience in an attractive valley known for its bird-watching.
La Mirage Garden Hotel & Spa (tel. 800/327-3573 in the U.S. and Canada, or 06/2915-237 in Ecuador; www.mirage.com.ec), on the outskirts of the tranquil colonial town of Cotacachi, is a luxury hotel and spa where the massages and aromatherapy can be complemented by contemplating the hummingbirds that abound in the hotel's extensive gardens.
Luna Runtun Adventure Spa (tel. 03/2730-882; www.lunaruntun.com), an attractive hotel and spa in the mountains above Baños, offers a range of massages, skin care, and hair care, as well as a selection of outdoor activities that include hiking, horseback riding, and mountain biking.
Samari Spa Resort (tel. 03/2741-855; www.samarispa.com) is a new resort hotel on the outskirts of Baños, with a delightful and luxurious spa, offering up a range of treatment options.
Ecuador is one of the world's best-kept surfing secrets. Between the Galápagos Islands and the Pacific coast, the country has at least 50 surf spots where the waves consistently break overhead. The coastal water is warm, especially from December to June, but the Galápagos are wet-suit territory pretty much year-round. The best surfing months are December to June, when the ocean is often glassy in the morning, and the sky is usually clear. From June to November, the water gets choppier and cold, especially in the Galápagos, and onshore winds can further complicate conditions, though the mainland experiences days with good conditions year-round.
Galápagos surfing is considerably more expensive, due to logistics and lodging costs, but the islands have few surfers and the waves are consistently overhead and uncrowded. San Cristóbal island has about five breaks, most of which are over volcanic-rock platforms; though pleasant from January through May, the water gets cold here during the June-to-December rainy season. The U.S. company Wave Hunters Surf Travel (tel. 888/899-8823 in the U.S. and Canada; www.wavehunters.com) offers 1-week surfing packages that include the flight from Guayaquil, lodging at the Canoa Surf Resort, and transportation to surf breaks that cost $1,800 to $2,750 (£1,200-£1,833).
Pacific coast surfing is considerably less expensive and offers more options. The coast has about 50 breaks, most of which lie between Manta and Salinas and along the coast south of Salinas. Montañita, a tubular right point break, is one of the best. Casa del Sol Surf Camp (www.casadelsolmontanita.com), in Montañita, offers accommodations, surf tours of coastal breaks, and instruction for novice surfers. Río Chico, north of Montañita, has an excellent left break when there is a southwest swell. Las Tunas, near Ayampé, is a fun beach break that can easily be surfed from Finca Punta Ayampé (tel. 09/4888-615; www.fincapuntaayampe.com), an ecolodge that offers surf tours, whale-watching, and other activities. Salinas has several breaks nearby, the best of which is a reef break in front of a military base that is only accessible by boat. San Mateo, near Manta, is a long, consistent left that can get very big. Canoa, on the northern coast, has a good beach break that can be fun for beginners and experienced surfers alike. Mompiche, south of Esmeraldas, is an intense left that breaks over lava rock -- for experienced surfers only.
Waterways Travel (tel. 888/669-7873 in the U.S. and Canada; www.waterwaystravel.com) sells packages ranging from a week at Casa Sol -- either surfing Montañita or touring nearby breaks -- which cost $320 to $515 (£213-£343) depending upon group size, to more expensive packages that combines a tour of various coastal breaks with a week in the Galápagos, or exclusive surf stays in the Galápagos.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.