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Got it! Thank you! Podcast: Ecuador's Ecological and Cultural Riches

The best new ways to explore one of South America's most diverse countries.

Best known for the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador offers far more than those zoological riches. Eliot Greenspan, author of Frommer's Ecuador & Galapagos Islands, joins Frommer's editor Matthew Brown and host Kelly Regan to discuss ecotourism, adventure activities, colonial Quito, coastal culture, and share their favorite Ecuadoran moments, like watching the sun rise over the rim of a volcano.

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Top Tips from This Podcast

See transcript below for links to more information.

  • Places to Go (cities):Quito, Quenca, Guayaquil, Puerto Ayora, Puerto Baquerizo Monero.
  • Hidden Gems:The High Sierra, Amazon jungle, Cotopaxi volcano, Incapirca.
  • Places to Try: Hacienda San Agustin de Callo.
  • Explore the Galapagos: Two main ways to explore: Take a cruise ship, or a land-based tour. Our tip: Combine the two.
  • Getting There: There are daily flights out of Miami, Atlanta, Houston and New York out of a few major carriers, stopping in both Quito and Guayaquil.
  • Be Prepared: Street crime is somewhat common, so use common sense. Some major roads get blocked off as political demonstrations. Take taxis at night.
Kelly Regan: Welcome to the Travel Podcast. For more information on planning your trip to any one of thousands of destinations, please visit us at

Hi, and welcome to the Podcast, the latest in our continuing conversations about all things travel. I'm Kelly Regan, editorial director of the Frommer's Travel Guides. I'll be your host.

My guest today is Eliot Greenspan who covers many, many Latin and South American destinations for Frommer's. He joined us a few months back to talk about Guatemala and I told him to come back and visit. So, he's here again today to talk about our brand new book, "Frommer's Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands", which is on sale now. Eliot and I are joined by Matthew Brown, who edited the Ecuador guide, and he lived there for a time.

Matthew is also a return guest because he and I talked about Columbia a few months back as well. So, Eliot and Matthew, welcome. Thanks for being here today.
Matthew Brown: Thanks for having us.
Eliot Greenspan: Yes. My pleasure.
Kelly: OK, so Eliot, you're talking to us now from Costa Rica, which has been your home for many years now. You know we've certainly seen Costa Rica over the last decade become, I don't know, sort of like the iPod of Latin American tourist destinations in terms of its ubiquitous popularity with tourism and travel. So how would you compare Ecuador's burgeoning tourism industry with the one that exists in Costa Rica?

We will talk about the Galapagos in minute, but apart from the Galapagos Islands, what can travelers expect to find in Ecuador that isn't available in a destination like Costa Rica?
Eliot: All right, well first off maybe I'll start off with some of the similarities. They're both just wonderful ecotourist and adventure tourist destinations, with plenty of opportunities for wildlife viewing, for scuba diving, for rain forest jungle excursions, for visits to cloud forests. But given its size and location, Ecuador has a lot, lot more to offer. Principle that comes to mind is the altitude in the High Sierra which...

You have the Andes reaching nearly 20,000 feet with just beautiful snow capped mountains, broad paramos; wonderful opportunities to ride horses, play cowboy.
Kelly: [laughs]
Eliot: Culturally you also have some truly wonderful colonial cities, principally Quito and Quenca, which Costa Rica lacks.
Kelly: Great.
Eliot: You also have some Incan ruins. Incapirca for example, is a very well preserved Inca ceremonial site that you lack in Costa Rica.

What you give up is a little bit of the infrastructure, and Costa Rica has had about 15 or 20 years to develop its industry.
Kelly: Right.
Eliot: So some things run a lot smoother.
Kelly: So you're talking it's maybe a little bit easier to get around in Costa Rica, than it is in Ecuador. But it seems that there are more varied types of things to see in Ecuador.
Eliot: There's definitely a larger range and a larger variety, sure.
Kelly: Yes. OK.
Matthew: Eliot, we know that Ecuador isn't renowned for its political stability. Since 2000 there have been five presidents I believe, and a junta that ruled for one day. I was actually there when there was a coup, a peaceful coup.

Now we have current President Rafael Correa who has said some harsh words toward the United States. He's also aligned himself with Chavez.
Kelly: Chavez.
Matthew: Hugo Chavez, right.
Kelly: Right.
Matthew: In my experience though, I always found Ecuadorians to be very warm and friendly to foreigners, including those from the States. What's the political situation now, and how does that affect travelers?
Eliot: Well, I think in a global sense the political situation doesn't really affect travelers on a day to day basis in Ecuador, nor does it in Cuba or Venezuela which I also cover. It's a little bit fluid right now, because Correa is just getting his feet under him and he's trying to reform the Constitutional Assembly that... basically the Constitution.

But I don't think that's going to really affect tourists on a day to day level. What you do, as any tourist anywhere really has to watch out for, is using basic common sense. Being aware of the prevalence of petty crime, and on the political thing, what Ecuador is famous for is totally unpredictable and a regular occurrence, is that small communities will periodically to air their grievances, or to have their grievances heard, will blockade major roads. And this happens all the time.
Kelly: [laughs]
Eliot: And there's no way to predict it and you just have to wait or find an alternative route around.
Kelly: It's a logistical issue, really, about taking buses or getting from place to place when that happens.
Eliot: And sporadic at that. I mean it's fairly common throughout the country, but it might hit somewhere in the Amazon region, and then two months later there will be a blockade in the Northern Route. Or it's not something that you really have to plan your trip around, or can plan your trip around.
Kelly: Right.
Matthew: But it's wise to have some flexibility in your travels when you're in Ecuador, wouldn't you agree? It's tough to plan a trip where you are on a short brief visit for let's say six days, or seven days and to try to check things off your list and to know that it's going to go exactly as you intend.
Kelly: Oh, good point, yes.
Eliot: Well, especially if you're doing it as a do-it-yourselfer or really taking care of it yourself. If you sign up for a tour with one of the bigger tour agencies that flies you from Quito, to Guayaquil, to the Galapagos, you can squeeze in one of those itineraries.
Kelly: Right.
Eliot: It's completely safe.
Kelly: Right, well you know it's interesting Eliot, speaking of itineraries, you alluded to this before. Although Ecuador is one of the smaller countries in South America, there is really a lot to see in this relatively small space when you're thinking about a country, when compared to someplace like Brazil which is much bigger. But in the book you suggest several excellent itineraries for seeing the best of the country in one to several weeks.

I was interested to see that even on the shortest itineraries you still tell people to spend a least a few days in Quito, the capital. So tell us what a few of your favorite things are to do there.
Eliot: I really like Quito. It was the first city designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO back in 1978. And it's the colonial center of Quito, one of the most stunning colonial cities you'll find in the Americas, with fabulous churches, large central plazas, convents and nunneries, and just a wonderful colonial feel.

On top of that, there's some wonderful restaurants and great museums that touch on both colonial and pre-colonial Inca history. And of course there's the complex of two museums that cover the works and collections of Oswaldo Guyasamin, Ecuador's...

Most famous and one of Latin America's most famous modern painters.
Kelly: Would you...
Eliot: There's plenty to do for a couple of days.
Kelly: Would you categorize Quito as a walkable city?
Eliot: The colonial area is definitely walkable. And then there's another popular area called the Mariscal District, which is also walkable. The points in between those and other neighborhoods, you'd probably want to take taxis or the local trolley system to get around.
Kelly: Yes. You also mentioned I think in the Quito chapter of the book that you need to be a little wary about walking around at night.
Eliot: Yes, absolutely yes. Street crime is definitely a problem and even in places like the Mariscal District, you should keep your walks at night very short. Taxis are plentiful and very inexpensive, and I highly recommend you take a taxi.
Kelly: OK. OK.
Matthew: Eliot, everyone knows about the Galapagos, for good reason of course. I always thought Ecuador had a number of other attractions that were sort of off the global radar, or off the radar for many of us. I had an opportunity to summit the Cotopaxi volcano, which reaches up to about 19 thousand feet, and it was really one of the most memorable experiences of my life. In your opinion, what are a few of Ecuador's hidden gems?
Eliot: Well, not many people realize that Ecuador has a large section of the country that is considered the Amazon basin, which is lowland, thick tropical rainforest, with just wonderful wildlife. Viewing freshwater dolphins, electric stingrays, and electric eels in the water, piranhas...
Kelly: Wow.
Eliot: You can fish for piranhas.
Kelly: [laughs]
Eliot: Eight to eleven types of monkeys and wild primates, various macaw and parrot species. Though Ecuador's Amazon is not as well known as, say, the Brazilian or even Peruvian Amazon.
Kelly: Right.
Eliot: As I also mentioned, you have the High Sierra. The whole central part of the country is the Andean Ridge, which reaches up to, as you know, 19 thousand and something feet, reaches those altitudes. Doesn't quite crack 20, I don't think.
Kelly: OK.
Eliot: But snowcapped volcanic peaks, High Sierra wild llamas and wild horses, and a series of very wonderfully converted old haciendas that now function as boutique hotels.
Kelly: Wow.
Eliot: Which are just lovely, I mean, just romantic, isolated, beautiful, historic. They bring you back in time. You get to see the workings of the old haciendas, you get to go horseback riding. I think that's one of the least known true gems of Ecuadorian tourism right now.
Kelly: Yeah.
Matthew: And you point out some of those in our book.
Eliot: I absolutely do. And one that comes to mind that's just a top notch gem is the Hacienda San Agustin de Callo, which is in the center of the country, and is now a working hotel, quite nice, quite luxurious; that was originally a small Incan ceremonial site, that was taken over by Augustine monks when they arrived in the 16th century, and converted into a monastery.

And now is a wonderful working hotel.
Kelly: Wow. That sounds great. You know, Matthew, I wanted to go back for a minute and ask you -- you said you summited Cotopaxi volcano, how challenging was that climb? I mean, 19,000 feet is really high. Was it really a tough, aggressive kind of climb? How long did it take?
Matthew: Well, that's the interesting thing, is that I'm not a climber, but it's really not as difficult as a technical climb would be. You do have to be in pretty reasonable shape.
Kelly: Yeah.
Matthew: I had done some running, and I had taken some time to acclimate, and done some practice climbs.
Kelly: Well, the altitude...
Matthew: Right.
Kelly: Yeah, the altitude is a huge thing.
Matthew: The altitude is the main thing. And we of course hired a guide who had done the climb many times. But what happens is the guide, with one other person, we slept for a couple of hours at a base camp hut, and at about midnight we started hiking, under a full moon.
Kelly: Wow.
Matthew: With Quito splayed out below us, all the lights in the valley, and just before sunrise we reached the summit, and we watched the sun come up over the snowcapped peaks, and had the whole city below us.
Kelly: Oh, that's fantastic.
Matthew: Yeah. About a four or five hour hike.
Kelly: OK, OK. So if you're acclimated -- that's something that obviously you wouldn't want to do if you had no physical fitness whatsoever [laughs] -- but if you're acclimated, and you have reasonable physical fitness, it sounds like something you could do.
Matthew: It's an absolutely amazing experience, and you do need to take some time before the hike. You don't want to get right off the plane and do the hike.
Kelly: Right.
Matthew: Eliot, I lived on Ecuador's coast, which, as you know, is really a world away, at least metaphorically, from the Sierra. What do you find are some of the differences -- in the people, the cuisine, the culture -- between the coast and the Sierra, which are Ecuador's two main principal regions?
Eliot: Well, a lot of them are just defined by their geography and what's available. The coastal people are fishermen, the cuisine is based one seafood much more than you'll find in the mountains, in the Sierra, where potatoes rule the day.

On the northern part of the Pacific coast, as I'm sure you're aware, there's a large black population that has deep African and Afro-Caribbean roots.

And their cuisine reflects it with spicier cooking, and coconut milk based stews, and whatnot. The Caribbean coast is also much more sparsely populated. You won't find any large cities. Not Caribbean, excuse me, the Pacific coast. You won't find any large cities on the coast, except for down south in Guayaquil.
Kelly: Guayaquil.
Eliot: Which is the major port city in the country.
Kelly: Right, right. And it's actually the largest city in Ecuador, right?
Eliot: It is -- and quite a rival of Quito, on social, cultural, political, and sporting terms.
Kelly: [laughs] Oh, really? They have rival soccer teams?
Eliot: Yes. And the people of the port city of Guayaquil and the people of Quito have a deep inbred rivalry that's probably akin to New York versus Boston.
Kelly: Oh, interesting. OK.
Matthew: Or even New York versus Los Angeles, one might say.
Eliot: Right...
Kelly: Huh, that's interesting.

Well, while we're on the coast, let's hop off the coast and talk about the Galapagos for a bit. Obviously, this is a huge destination for people who are traveling to Ecuador, and you say in the book that if the Galapagos were a religious attraction, it would be considered hallowed ground.

Many people know the superlatives that you associate with this island chain. Just as an example, there's more than 300 species of fish found here, some say more than 400; more than 160 species of bird; and 11 species of tortoise alone, including Lonesome George, who I think is quite the celebrity in the Galapagos. I think he's 80-something years old.

In your opinion -- obviously, there's so much to see, and there are so many different things that you can do -- but for you, what's the best way to see this kind of incredible zoological laboratory?
Eliot: Well, there are two main ways to see the Galapagos. One is to go on a cruise ship, which can range from a relatively small vessel to a 200 passenger cruise ship; or to do a land based tour, where you fly into one of the two main islands, Santa Cruz or Santa Isabella, and work off of a hotel, doing trips out in boats during the day, and on the island that you're on.

For me, the best way to do that is to combine the two. Fly out and spend a couple of nights on one of the main islands, and then sign up for a shorter, three or four day cruise out of that island. I think that's the best of both worlds.
Kelly: OK. So what's the advantage of actually spending a few days on the land and seeing it that way, as opposed to just getting right on a cruise ship and sailing around?
Eliot: Right, well, the reason I like doing both is the two main towns, Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal are just these lovely little towns out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. They do a mixture of fishing and tourism. They're quite small and cute, have good restaurants, nice little souvenir shops and easy access to a nice stable bed on land. These are the attractions of these islands.
Kelly: Sure.
Eliot: Although taking one of those cruise ships allows you to get to some of the more remote islands and see some of the wildlife and geological sites that are further offshore.
Kelly: Sure, and I would imagine that the smaller the cruise ship, the more you're able to penetrate into the island chain in terms of where you can go.
Eliot: That's actually not necessarily true. It's a very regulated national park, and whether you're a big ship or a small ship, there are only a certain number of sites that are open to the public, and both the big and small ships go to these sites.
Kelly: Well that's good to know.
Eliot: Being on the small ships gives you a much more intimate sense of your group and your travel experience.
Kelly: Right.
Eliot: Of course, what you sacrifice are often some of the more luxurious accommodations and frills. You won't have a jacuzzi on the top deck of a small boat.
Matthew: And in the book, Eliot, you point out rightly that your guide is really a crucial component to having a good tour of the Galapagos.
Eliot: Absolutely. The knowledge of your guide is essential, both in the Galapagos and in the Amazon region, as well.
Kelly: Yeah.
Eliot: Any place where you're doing wildlife viewing, the guide is essential.
Matthew: Yeah. Eliot, I want to talk about the cuisine for a moment. One of my favorite Ecuadorian dishes is ceviche, which is a soup popular on the coasts. It's made with green bananas, peanuts, herbs and seafood. What are a couple of your favorite dishes?
Eliot: Actually I think everybody should be warned, right off the bat, about how big a role soup has in the cuisine. Virtually every meal, whether it's at a hotel, restaurant or private home, is served with soup - lunch or dinner. Breakfast, luckily, escapes that.
Kelly: Breakfast is soup-free.
Eliot: For me, the best parts of Ecuadorian cuisine are the meals you get of fresh trout and simply grilled meats served in a small hacienda in the high Sierra. I also like the fact that they have this fruit, the tree tomato.
Kelly: Right.
Eliot: It's served as a juice every morning. It's delightfully tart and sweet, somewhere in between a tomato and a passion fruit. It's the most common juice. It's delightful.

I also like the chicha tradition, which is practiced all throughout the country. This is where the rural communities make their own 'moonshine' or home brew. It can be made out of corn up in the highlands, potatoes, yucca and plantains down in the Amazon. It's not so much the taste or the fine vintage. It's just a wonderful community experience to share chicha with the local population.
Kelly: Right. Well Eliot, I can't let you get away with talking about the food without bringing up the fact that in the 'Best of Ecuador' chapter, you say that eating cuy is one of your 'best, purely Ecuadorian experiences'. And for those who don't know, cuy is guinea pig.

A few months back, I had the same conversation in a podcast with our author, Neil Schlecht, who writes the 'Frommer's Peru Guide'. He's not as enamored of Peruvian cuy. I think he was a concerned that the little cuy comes with its teeth bared and its claws are upside down on the plate, and he looks stressed out. I'm curious to find out what it is that you liked about it.
Eliot: Well actually I agree with Neil. I would describe it like that, but that doesn't take away from the fact that eating cuy or guinea pig is one of the most ubiquitous and best, purely Ecuadorian experiences. You'll find it everywhere, on menus at fine restaurants and at roadside stands roasting on open spits. You'll just see these poor guys being roasted everywhere across the country. I just don't think it's fair to visit and leave the country without trying it.
Kelly: Sure.
Eliot: It's a lot of work to get pretty gamey meat.
Kelly: They're pretty bony.
Eliot: Very bony. You'll have plenty of toothpicks to use from the little bones. But it is just a quintessential experience.
Kelly: Right, I think that's a valid point. But if you're up for the challenge, then I think it's definitely something to try. So we're pretty much out of time. For listeners who have persevered through the end of our podcast and are really intrigued with Ecuador as a potential travel destination, tell us how easy it is to get there from the US. I believe you can go nonstop to either Quito or Guayaquil from several gateways. Is that right?
Eliot: Yes, there are daily flights out of Miami, Atlanta, Houston and New York on a couple of major carriers: American, Continental and Delta. They all pretty much stop in both cities in route. Quito will probably be the final destination. They also stop to discharge and pickup passengers in Guayaquil on the way. That way, if you're just going to the Galapagos, you can fly into Guayaquil and you don't need to go into Quito. Or you can do a combination, using one leg for when you do your Galapagos trip.
Kelly: Right, that's a very good point. And I believe the flight's not really that long. From the southern US, it's maybe about four hours.
Eliot: Right, from Miami, I think it's about four hours. And to come in from New York, it will be a couple of extra hours.
Kelly: Right. So actually if you think about it, it's just about as long as flying across the US. It's a lot closer than people think. All right, I think that's probably all the time we have for today.

I've been talking with Matthew Brown whose an editor here at Frommer's, and our resident Ecuador expert. I've also been talking to Eliot Greenspan whose the author of our new book, "Frommer's Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands," which is on sale now.

Eliot also covers Cuba, Costa Rica, Belize, Venezuela and Guatemala for Frommer's. So we keep you very busy. Eliot, I enjoyed our conversation very much. Thanks so much for being here.
Eliot: My pleasure. I will talk to you soon.
Kelly: Definitely. Matthew, thanks again for joining us. This was a great conversation.
Matthew: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Kelly: So join us next week for another episode of "All Things Travel." I'm Kelly Regan, and we will talk again soon.
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