Cuicocha Lake: Formed thousands of years ago in the extinct crater of a massive volcano, this beautiful, clear, blue lake is a popular destination. You can choose between hiking around the rim of the crater or scrambling down for a boat ride on the waters of the lake. The lake is named after the popular dish cuy (guinea pig), because locals thought the islands in its center resembled guinea pigs.
Cotopaxi National Park: With 33,393 hectares (82,516 acres) surrounding the park's namesake and emblematic volcano, this is Ecuador's most popular national park, after the Galápagos. At 5,897m (19,347 ft.), the snow-covered Cotopaxi is the country's second highest peak, and allegedly the highest active volcano in the world. Tour options here range from leisure hikes at lower elevations to full-on summit climbs, with other options including mountain biking, horseback riding, and camping. The best general tour operators running trips to Cotopaxi are Metropolitan Touring (tel. 02/2988-200; www.metropolitan-touring.com) and Surtrek (tel. 02/2500-660; www.surtrek.com). For hard-core climbing and adventures, try Safari Ecuador (tel. 02/2552-505; www.safari.com.ec).
Cajas National Park: Located just outside Cuenca, this beautiful national park is famous for its 232 high montane lakes and misty cloud forests. It is also an excellent place for hiking and bird-watching. Easily accessible, it's a great change of pace from the cobblestone streets, colonial-era churches, and Panama-hat shops of Cuenca.
Isla de la Plata: The crowning jewel of Machalilla National Park is Isla de la Plata, an offshore island often touted as "the poor man's Galápagos." Whether or not that's an appropriate or even worthy moniker, Isla de la Plata offers excellent bird- and wildlife-viewing and snorkeling. What's more, from late June through early October, you have a good chance of seeing humpback whales on the boat ride out to the island. On land, Machalilla has some fabulous trails and beaches.
The Beaches West of Atacames: In general, Ecuador is not a great beach destination. It certainly can't hold a candle to beaches found in the Caribbean, South Pacific, or even Mexico or Costa Rica. However, the relatively short section of Pacific coast west of Atacames has several small and beautiful beaches. Sua and Same are my favorites, and Tonsupa, Tonchigue, and Galera are also pretty. For someplace really unique and isolated, you can head to the small island of Muisne.
The Rainforests of Ecuador's El Oriente: When Amazon rainforests are mentioned, most people think of Brazil. But Ecuador's El Oriente is a vast area of lowland tropical rainforest that is part of the Amazon basin. In fact, Francisco Orellana, who first named and navigated the Amazon River, began his long journey here in Ecuador. Over 500 species of birds and some 15,000 species of flora can be found here, as well as freshwater dolphins, 11 different species of monkeys, anacondas, caimans, and jaguars.
The Galápagos Islands: Ecuador's prime attraction is a naturalist's paradise. In fact, if we were talking religion, this would be Holy Ground. It was here that Charles Darwin developed many of his ideas that would later emerge as the theory of natural selection and the theory of evolution. Not only are the Galápagos famous for their wildlife -- on land, in the sea, and in the air -- but this unique and isolated volcanic archipelago is a living geology laboratory.
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.