Ecuador with Adventures Abroad
Alison and I recently returned from yet another fabulous destination with Adventures Abroad, the country of Ecuador which despite its relatively small size, has an incredible variety of ecosystems. From the Galapagos Islands to the towering volcanoes of the Andes to the UNESCO World Heritage cities of Quito and Cuenca to the truly staggering diversity of life in Amazonia, Ecuador has more than enough to keep the visitor enthralled for a month or more. Here are my top reasons why Ecuador should be the next place on your must visit list.
The trip we took with Adventures Abroad was the 14 day Experiential tour that includes Quito, the Galapagos and the Amazon, all of which were high on my list of things to do in Ecuador. However, AA also offers a 19 day tour that includes the Avenue of the Volcanoes and the cities of Banos, Cuenca and Guayaquil. Those were places I wanted to see as well, but the dates for that tour did not work for us so I asked Martin Charlton at AA if he could recommend a company to provide us with a private guide to take us on that more comprehensive itinerary once our tour wrapped up in Quito. He did and we ended up with not only a great guide, but a great person as well in Wilson Rosales who made our last days in Ecuador truly special.
In essence my top reasons for going to Ecuador will coincide with the longer of the AA tours to that country. So, without further introduction, let’s dive into the reasons that Ecuador has to be on your bucket list.
1. The Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
I absolutely guarantee that whatever your expectations are about the Galapagos, that they will be exceeded once you get there. Secondly, I guarantee that whatever preconceptions you have about the Galapagos, you will be pleasantly surprised about how limited and often incorrect they were. Frankly, I have never been to a place as unique as this far flung archipelago that we mostly associate with Charles Darwin and the Theory of Evolution.
While I was expecting to see an amazing variety of wildlife on the Galapagos, much of it endemic to the islands, I was really not prepared for just how accessible the wildlife is here. The lack of natural predators and the protection now afforded them has made almost every species completely oblivious to the presence of man. It literally took less than a minute from the time we arrived on the waterfront at San Cristobal to encounter the sea lions, marine iguanas and Sally Lightfoot crabs that the place is famous for.
The main misconception that I and I think most of group had about the Galapagos was that essentially it was one giant nature reserve with few people actually living here. Instead we found an infrastructure that was advanced, the bustling small city of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, a Jimmy Buffet like Caribbean vibe in San Cristobal and an end of the road feel to tiny Puerto Villamil. There were great beaches and fantastic and unusual snorkelling opportunities in addition to the wildlife viewing which is the principal attraction for most visitors.
I will write a lot more about our stay on three of Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands in future posts, but I want to give one tip which I think can make your visit a lot better if you follow it.
To be honest when I booked the Ecuador trip I did not pay much attention to the manner in which we would visit the various islands. It was enough just to think, “I’m finally getting to go to the Galapagos!” As it turned out the Experiential tour visit to the Galapagos involved staying on land at three different hotels. We flew to San Cristobal from Quito and then to Isabela on a tiny eight seater and finally to Santa Cruz by boat from Isabela before returning to the mainland from there.
The other alternative, which was once the primary method of visiting, is by cruise ship and still about half the tourists take that route. Many fly in and board small cruise ships that sail from island to island with the guests returning each night to their small on board cabins. Instead of getting the opportunity to explore places like San Cristobal on your own in the evening or try any of the great seafood restaurants, these tourists are governed by the rigid schedule of a cruise. I am so happy that more by luck than advance preparation we got to take the land option instead of the cruise option.
In fairness, the cruise option which AA does offer on one Ecuador tour (EC14) does get to some of the remoter of the Galapagos Islands that are not on the itinerary for the land only version and it may well appeal to those who have already visited the three major islands. However, for the first time visitor to the Galapagos I would definitely opt for the land tour over the cruise.
One final note about the Galapagos. Prior to Covid it was not unusual to read or hear stories about how this remarkable place was being ruined by over tourism. It is true that it was once a place so hard to get to that it wasn’t until 1986 that the number of yearly visitors topped 20,000. Since then the numbers have increased dramatically. In 2013 the numbers topped 200,000 for the first time. However, let’s put that in perspective. In 2019 Venice with its tiny land mass, had over 5.5 million visitors.
Covid dramatically reduced the number of people visiting not only the Galapagos, but anywhere in Ecuador. The numbers are slowly growing again, but are still well below pre-Covid numbers. We saw far more cruise ships tied up than ones on active duty. One thing I did not know prior to visiting is just how tightly the Ecuadorean government controls access to the most sensitive ecological sites on the Galapagos. For example visits to Kicker Rock off San Cristobal are limited to a couple of boats at a time. There is nowhere near the free for all you will find at say Molokini Crater on Maui.
The bottom line is that there is absolutely no reason to have any doubts or guilt about visiting the Galapagos. You tourism dollars help the local economy and with the numbers still down, now is the time to go.
There could not be a greater contrast between the Galapagos and Amazonia an area that covers 7,000,000 sq. kms. (2,700,00 sq. miles) and spreads over nine South American countries. Of that, over 5,500,000 sq. kms. (2, 123,000 sq.miles) constitutes the largest rainforest on earth. While most people think of Brazil when they think of the Amazon, almost 50% of Ecuador is within Amazonia, but with only 5% of the population. The Amazon has dozens of tributaries that are actually substantial rivers in their own right and in Ecuador it is the Napo River that is the principal waterway. In the absence of roads it is the transportation lifeline for the many Indigenous communities found in this part of the country, as well as the manner in which much of Ecuador’s oil is transported.
It was really surprising to me that you can take a short 40 minute flight from Quito to the small city of Coca on the Napo River and be in a completely different world. The Andes are nowhere in sight and the temperature and humidity immediately let you know that you are in tropical climate. The final destination is the Napo Cultural Centre, a two hour trip away from Coca by boat. It is located within the bounds of Yasuni National Park and is owned and operated by the Indigenous Kichwa Community.
I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that in all my travels I had never been in the Amazon Basin. However, I can say with some certainty that I will be going back after the taste I got in the all too short time we spent there with Adventures Abroad. The amazing diversity of life in this ecosystem is not readily apparent. I expected to see a lot more wildlife than I did on the boat trip from Coca to the cultural centre and was initially disappointed. However, over the next few days we made numerous forays into the rainforest by canoe and on foot, in both daylight and after dark, and my appreciation of why Amazonia is one of the most important places on earth grew exponentially. I will provide a lot more detail on what we saw and did while at the Napo Cultural Centre in future posts, but suffice it to say that if you are considering going to Ecuador be sure to include the Amazon extension in your plans.
At an elevation of 9,350 feet Quito is the second highest capital city in the world. There are almost three million people spread out in a seemingly endless valley with the Andes on both sides including 15,696 foot (4784 metres) Pichincha volcano which is still active. Despite the size of modern Quito, the historic district is quite small and very walkable. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which describes it as follows:
Quito, the capital of Ecuador, was founded in the 16th century on the ruins of an Inca city and stands at an altitude of 2,850 m. Despite the 1917 earthquake, the city has the best-preserved, least altered historic centre in Latin America. The monasteries of San Francisco and Santo Domingo, and the Church and Jesuit College of La Compañía, with their rich interiors, are pure examples of the ‘Baroque school of Quito’, which is a fusion of Spanish, Italian, Moorish, Flemish and indigenous art.
In previous travels to Mexico, Central America, Colombia and even southwest United States, I have come to have a deep appreciation of the architecture of Spanish colonial cities in the western hemisphere. Yes they almost all have a horrific past based on complete subjugation and even annihilation of the Indigenous peoples the Spanish displaced, but hundreds of years after those events occurred they have an undeniable attraction that makes them well worth visiting. Historic Quito is no exception and has some of the most amazing church interiors I have ever seen.
La Compañia or Jesuit College might look like just another baroque colonial church from the outside, but the golden interior is something you will never forget; and it’s only one of many such structures you will visit on the walking tour of historic Quito.
I will have a lot more to say about Quito in upcoming posts, but for the purposes of this overview I offer this advice – arrive in Quito at least a day before the tour officially begins. It will help you get acclimatized to the elevation, plus there’s a lot more to see than just historic Quito. The Hotel Mama Cuchura that AA uses in Quito is really excellent and you won’t regret spending an extra day or two there.
4. The Avenue of the Volcanoes
In 1802 the famous polymath Alexander von Humboldt came to Ecuador to study and collect specimens in his never ending quest for knowledge. He and his companion Aimé Bonpland spent five years in and travelled 6,000 miles throughout Latin America, documenting their findings in journals that are still used for reference today. It was Humboldt who named the route that passes through the Andean valleys of Ecuador the Avenue of the Volcanoes. It is an apt name as there are seventy volcanoes in Ecuador of which twenty-seven are still active. These include beautiful conical peak of Cotopaxi and 20,548 foot (6,263 metres) Mount Chimborazo which was once thought to be the highest place on earth. While it’s not, it’s location near the equator makes it the closest point to the sun on the planet – get your head around that.
The drive along the Pan-American highway between Quito and Cuenca is one of the most scenic I have ever enjoyed. With side trips to do some high altitude hiking near Cotopaxi and ascending up to 15,800 feet on the side of Chimborazo it was a more than worthwhile addition to our Ecuador itinerary. In North America our Rocky Mountains rise to heights of 14,435 feet (4400 metres) in Colorado and they are snow covered year round. In the Ecuadorean Andes there are still green fields at those type of elevations.
One of the highlights of travelling the Avenue of the Volcanoes was stopping for lunch at Hacienda La Cienaga and being shown the room where von Humboldt stayed to observe nearby Cotopaxi. If you take the EC15 Adventures Abroad tour you will get to spend the night there.
Cuenca is the third city of Ecuador after Quito and Guayaquil, but it is much smaller and has a distinct vibe of its own that warrants adding it to your itinerary. Like Quito, its historic area is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site for this reason:
Santa Ana de los Ríos de Cuenca is set in a valley surrounded by the Andean mountains in the south of Ecuador. This inland colonial town (entroterra ), now the country’s third city, was founded in 1557 on the rigorous planning guidelines issued 30 years earlier by the Spanish king Charles V. Cuenca still observes the formal orthogonal town plan that it has respected for 400 years. One of the region’s agricultural and administrative centres, it has been a melting pot for local and immigrant populations. Cuenca’s architecture, much of which dates from the 18th century, was ‘modernized’ in the economic prosperity of the 19th century as the city became a major exporter of quinine, straw hats and other products.
While Cuenca does not have the over the top baroque churches that Quito has (its cathedral is actually 19th century) it is a great place just to ramble around in. Its central market seemed more authentic and local than that of Quito. The hornado stalls there create not only a great aroma of roasting meat, but you won’t be able resist ordering a plate of this delicious Ecuadorian specialty.
Despite its smaller size Cuenca has a much more metropolitan feel to it than Quito. There are a lot of North American ex-pats living there in quite upscale neighbourhoods which gives it an air of prosperity not apparent in Quito. Frankly, Cuenca was a very pleasant surprise in a country full of them.
6. The Wildlife of Ecuador
Not since my first trip to Africa have I ever encountered as many new species of birds, mammals and reptiles as on this trip to Ecuador. As noted, I was expecting to see a lot of the species endemic to the Galapagos, but I was not prepared for just how unconcerned they were about the presence of humans. Getting great photos without a telephoto was no problem. Likewise the wild vicunas on the slopes of Mount Chimborazo. However, Amazonia did require more patience, but still yielded some great shots including the best one of the tour – an extremely rare harpy eagle, the first seen in many years at Napo Cultural Centre.
Here is a gallery of some of my favourite animal photos from this trip. Aside from the harpy eagle and maybe wild Andean condors, it’s not unreasonable to think you will see all these species on your tour. Click on the photos to go to a link for a larger version.
What this gallery does not show is the great variety of life we saw below the surface on our multiple snorkelling outings in the Galapagos. I have swam with sea turtles a number of times before, but have never seen them in both the size and numbers as in Ecuador. For the more daring we had the chance to snorkel through some very narrow channels where white tipped reef sharks were apparently napping only a few feet below us. This is our local guide Pablo leading the way.
Earlier we had observed the sharks from the safety of dry land. While it seems counterintuitive or even suicidal to get yourself in a place that shallow and narrow with so many sharks, it’s actually quite safe as these sharks are docile and haven’t attacked any snorkellers that I know of.
For future posts I hope to include some underwater shots that the guides and others in our group took on these interesting excursions.
7. The Food and Drink of Ecuador
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the food in Ecuador so was once again very pleasantly surprised at the quality and variety of both traditional and international dishes on offer. One thing we had no concerns about was getting Atahuallpa’s revenge, the Ecuadorian version of the infamous Montezuma’s revenge that ruins the vacation of many people to Mexico. We used the usual precautions of drinking bottled water and avoiding uncooked fruits and vegetables from street vendors, although in truth salads were just fine at any of the restaurants we ate at. On most AA trips you are on your own for lunch, but on this one all meals, but a few were included. Our guide Alfredo took us to a wide range of places and I never had a bad meal.
Here are a few of the things you will want to try while in Ecuador. This is locra de papa or Ecuadorian potato soup which is ubiquitous in the Andean region. I had it the first night we arrived at La Casona de la Ronda in Quito and was immediately hooked. We learned how to make it at the cooking class on the first day of the tour and Alison and I have made it back home. The secret ingredient is achiote powder or paste which we bought for about 50 cents while in Ecuador. On line from Amazon it’s twenty times that much.
There are many other great soups that you will find in Ecuador including multiple version featuring quinoa which is native to the Andes.
One of my top ten favourite dishes in the world is ceviche which originated with the Moche people of Peru and has long been a staple of Ecuadorian cuisine as well. Ecuador is a huge producer of shrimp and I had many fine shrimp ceviches on this trip as well as some excellent fish based versions as well.
If you prefer your seafood a little less raw then you will find plenty of dishes like this grilled octopus which was fabulous. Many types of fresh fish are also available, especially in the Galapagos. In fact I would say if you are a pescatarian then you won’t find a much better place to visit than Ecuador.
I mentioned earlier that the salads in the Ecuadorian restaurants we visited were perfectly safe and none was better than this Tortuga Bay salad from the Almar Seafood Grill in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz.
If you are a meat eater as am I and Alison then you need to try some of the specialties of Ecuador. Hornados are slow roasted pork which is cut from a whole roasted pig. If you like pork, especially the crunchy skin then you have to try this. There are lots of stalls in the highlands food markets selling them and each seems to have their dedicated followers. This plate was from a stall in the Cuenca central market.
Cuenca and much of highland Ecuador has another specialty that you might want to try – roast guinea pig. While they are rodents and not pigs and have never been anywhere near Guinea, these creatures were first domesticated in the Andes up to 7,000 years ago. They have always been an important source of food and only when imported to Europe did people raise them as pets. If you balk at the idea of eating a rodent, remember that rabbits are also rodents and they are the basis of many fine dishes including the hassenfeffer that Yosemite Sam was tasked with getting Bugs Bunny as the main ingredient.
They are roasted on these special skewers and one will feed about four people. Both Alison and I really enjoyed our guinea pig meal and actually prefer it to most rabbit dishes we’ve had.
Now if you are a bit more adventurous you might want to try these fried rhinoceros beetle larva which we had at Napo Cultural Centre. They are an important source of protein for the Kichwa who also eat them alive which was a bridge too far for me.
In terms of beverages you will find many types of juices not seen in North America on offer, especially at breakfast. When we were there it was mango season and many people started their day with mango juice. As you would expect in a country bordering Colombia, the coffee was usually excellent and there are a lot of herbal teas you can try.
There are two main beers, Club and Pilsener that are widely available and are pleasant refreshers on a hot day. On the Galapagos there seemed to be quite a number of craft breweries, especially on Santa Cruz. This Reptilia Galapagos Irish Red Ale was probably the best beer I sample in Ecuador.
In terms of wine, we did find a lovely Ecuadorian chardonnay, Enigma from Bodega Dos Hemisferios, but most of the wines are imported from Chile or Argentina.
Finally, once you get back in the boat from snorkelling you might want to try a shot of the national drink of Ecuador, aguardiente which is basically moonshine. Alfredo handed out shots and it certainly did the trick of warming you up.
So in conclusion there are many good reasons to add Ecuador to your list of destinations for 2023.
Oh, I forgot. There’s one more.
8. You Get to Straddle the Equator
In future posts I’ll go into a lot more detail on Ecuador. I hope you’ll read them.