The Republic of Ecuador sits near the northwestern corner of South America. It's bordered by Colombia to the north, Peru to the south and east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west. The Galápagos Islands, which straddle the Equator, are located about 966km (600 miles) to the west, in the Pacific Ocean. The country covers an area of 272,046 sq. km (105,038 sq. miles), making it roughly the same size as Colorado.
Situated at some 2,850m (9,350 ft.), Quito is the second-highest capital city in the world (after La Paz, Bolivia). It may be the capital of Ecuador, but it's actually the second-most populous city in the country (after Guayaquil). Still, it's a major transportation hub, so most visitors begin and end their trips to Ecuador here. Quito is one of the more charming cities in South America, and there's plenty to see and do. Old Town, with its wonderfully preserved colonial-style buildings, was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1978 -- the first city to earn the designation. New Town is a lively cosmopolitan area, with all the modern amenities you would expect to find in a world-class destination.
The Northern Sierra
Just north of Quito, the Equator cuts across Ecuador and forms the border that roughly defines the country's northern Sierra, or highlands. Imbabura is the first province you hit, and one of the country's prime tourism destinations. In Imbabura, you can explore the colorful artisans market of Otavalo, as well as nearby towns, where you'll find the workshops and homes of many of the artisans who supply this fabulous market. In addition, this region is one of high volcanic mountains and crater lakes. There are great hiking opportunities, especially at such beautiful spots as Cuicocha Lake and Mojanda Lakes. Farther north lie the province of Carchi and the small border town of Tulcán, a gateway, albeit a rather dangerous one, to Colombia.
The Central Sierra
The central Sierra covers the area south of Quito. Cotopaxi National Park is a little more than an hour south of Quito, and it's one of the most popular attractions on mainland Ecuador. Active travelers can climb to the summit of the highest active volcano in Ecuador (and one of the highest in the world), while anybody can marvel at its imposing beauty from the high-altitude paramo all around the park. The central Sierra contains many isolated, colonial-era haciendas that have been converted into fabulous hotels and lodges. Most offer a variety of active tour options, with horseback riding often being the mainstay. Baños and Riobamba are the primary tourist towns of the central Sierra. Travelers head to Baños mainly for both relaxation and active adventures. The city, which is nestled at the bottom of active Volcán Tungurahua, offers great hiking and biking opportunities, as well as easy access to great white-water rafting. You can also take a soothing soak in one of the hot springs, or pamper yourself with spa treatments. Riobamba is more of an industrial city, and there's not much to do here besides catching the popular Nariz del Diablo (Devil's Nose) tourist train, which involves a spectacular journey along the winding switchbacks of a steep rock face, or setting out to summit Chimborazo, the country's highest peak, at 6,310 meters (20,702 feet).
Cuenca & the Southern Sierra
Cuenca is the largest and most interesting city in the southern highlands. Like Quito, it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Cuenca was the second-most important city in the Inca empire (after Cusco). Nearby, you can explore Ingapirca, an archaeological site with both Inca and pre-Inca ruins. Cajas National Park is located only an hour outside Cuenca, and farther south lies the small city of Loja, one of the oldest cities in Ecuador. South of Loja is the even-more-remote village of Vilcabamba, famed for the health and longevity of its residents. Many come here seeking to sip from the town's fountain of youth; others use it as a jumping-off point to visit the wild Podocarpus National Park.
Guayaquil & the Southern Coast
Guayaquil is Ecuador's largest city. Chiefly a port and industrial city, Guayaquil is reinventing itself at a dizzying pace. The city's attractive riverside walk, Malecón Simón Bolívar, has served as the anchor for a minirenaissance. Guayaquil boasts several excellent museums as well as top-notch hotels, restaurants, and bars. To the west of Guayaquil lies the Ruta del Sol (Route of the Sun), a string of beach resorts, small fishing villages, and isolated stretches of sand. Surfers come here to find that endless wave, and sun worshippers can get the perfect tan. At the north end of the Ruta del Sol is Machalilla National Park. The sleepy town of Puerto López, just outside the park, is a gateway to the park's mainland sections, as well as to Isla de la Plata, which is home to a rich variety of wildlife, and which is often called the "Poor Person's Galápagos."
Northern Pacific Coast & Lowlands
Ecuador's northern coast and its surrounding lowlands are often neglected or avoided by most tourists, although Ecuadoreans are well aware of this area's charms. The beaches around Esmeraldas and Atacames are by far the prettiest in the country. The seaside city of Bahía de Caráquez is a picturesque and peaceful place with a safe and scenic bayside Malecón. At the southern end of this section of coast is Manta, the country's second-largest port and home to a controversial U.S. airbase, which may be shut down soon after this book goes to press. Santo Domingo de los Colorados, a bit inland, serves as a major crossroads and little-known gateway to a couple of beautiful and isolated nature lodges.
The eastern region of Ecuador, known as El Oriente, is a vast area of lowland tropical rainforests and jungle rivers. It's considered part of the Amazon basin because the rivers here all feed and form the great Amazon River just a little farther downstream. The wildlife and bird-watching here are phenomenal; visitors have a chance to see hundreds of bird species and over a dozen monkey species, as well as anaconda, caiman, and freshwater dolphins. For the most part, the indigenous people in this region escaped domination by both the Incas and the Spanish, so they have been able to maintain their ancient rituals and traditions. Most visitors explore this area by staying at one of many remote jungle lodges, some of which are surprisingly comfortable. English-speaking guides will take you to local villages, as well as show you the incredible diversity of wildlife here.
The Galápagos Islands
The Galápagos Islands, located about 966km (600 miles) off the coast of Ecuador, are one of nature's most unique outdoor laboratories. The unusual wildlife here helped Charles Darwin formulate his theory of natural selection. Fortunately for modern-day visitors, not much has changed since Darwin's time, and the islands still offer visitors the chance to get up close and personal with a wide variety of unique and endemic species, including giant tortoises, marine iguanas, penguins, sea lions, albatrosses, boobies, and flightless cormorants. The best way to explore the area is on a cruise ship or yacht. Note, however, that this isn't your typical cruise destination -- trips involve packed days of tours and activities, some of them strenuous. A more relaxing option would be to base yourself at a resort in Santa Cruz (the most populated island in the Galápagos) and take select day trips to the islands of your choice.
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.