The country’s capital, Quito, is a welcoming, culture-rich town with scenery that takes one’s breath away. Nearly two miles high and almost directly on the equator, this Andean capital stretches along the foothills beneath the Pinchincha Volcano, and in its superb colonial churches all that glitters is undoubtedly pure gold. The Old Town—a UNESCO World Heritage Site—is considered the largest and best preserved in the Americas, while the new town is home to a bevy of excellent museums, irresistible craft boutiques and delicious restaurant dining. Day excursions take visitors by car or train through the northern sierra to Cotopaxi National Park for a day of hiking, horseback riding and volcano climbing; to the Equatorial Monument located right on Latitude 0; to the cloud forest of El Mindo for superb birdwatching; and to the many colorful Indian markets along the Pan American Highway. In the southern sierra, Cuenca—another colonial gem and a UNESCO World Heritage Site—rivals Quito in its profusion of churches and convents, and close-by is Ingapirca, the northernmost and most impressive of pre-Columbian ruins. Gateway to the Pacific coast is Guayaquil, a port city that flows along a bustling harbor promenade, and along Ecuador’s 937-mile shoreline, “La Costa” is dotted with tranquil little resorts, quiet beaches, and wildlife sanctuaries such as Machalilla National Park where from June to September whales migrate just offshore around Isla de la Plata, called a mini-Galapagos. Of course, far offshore (600 miles) are indeed the Galapagos Islands, where sea lions, marine and land iguanas, blue- and red-footed boobies and giant tortoises still roam freely and tamely. (ecuador.travel)
What’s New in Ecuador
✘ Ecuador has “discovered” a different way to experience the Andes—following the Flowers and Weaving Trail, which winds from crafts villages such as Cotacachi, Calderon and Otavalo to a dozen flower farms welcoming travelers to smell the country’s famous roses, and learn about the hundreds of varieties grown for export. The route embraces restaurants serving traditional highlands cuisine and historic haciendas for overnight stays. (flowertrailecuador.com)
✘ In Quito, the 22-room La Casona de la Ronda is new, occupying a historic mansion in the Bohemian heart of the historic center; featured are rooms with handcrafted furnishings, TVs and WiFi, a reading room and fireplace. (lacasonadelaronda.com)
✘ Near Tulipe on a private, 3,000-acre bio-reserve is Metropolitan Touring’s Mashpi Lodge, with 22 luxury rooms whose bathrooms have rainforest views; low impact on the environment is the concept here, in the spa, dining menus, guided hikes, bicycle tours, and dips in the waterfalls. Aerial tram coming in September. (mashpilodge.com)
✘ Red Mangrove Galapagos & Ecuador Lodges has opened the largest dive center in the archipelago. The Red Mangrove Dive Academy on Santa Cruz Island now provides classrooms and a 20-ft. training pool used in scuba certification programs, plus a hyperbaric chamber. Two dive boats from the center visit more than 40 dive sites in the Galapagos Marine Preserve, long known for its challenging deep water dives for the big ones—manta rays, sharks and whales—but now accessible to divers of all skill levels. (redmangrove.com)
✘ A new option for day trips from Quito, or longer stays, is the Sacred Valley of Tulipe, located 40 miles from Quito. The valley is not only a major birdwatching destination, but also home to the ancient (800 A.D. to 1400 A.D.) Yumbo culture. A new Yumbo Civilization Interpretation Center anchors the excavated remains of cemeteries, living quarters and aqueducts with petroglyphs; the local community provides home-cooked meals to visitors.