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Travel Guide: Ecuador Highlights

12th Oct 2011 2:02am | By Editor

It's small, but there's no shortage of things to see in Ecuador.

Quito

Dramatically hemmed by volcanoes, Quito is a clash of colonial, indigenous and rampant capitalism. While most visitors stay in the new town, the Unesco World Heritage-listed old town is a wonderful collection of colonial mansions, churches, monasteries and cobbled streets.

Nariz del Diablo train

Quite literally a train to nowhere, but well worth the ride to experience “The Devil’s Nose”, a steep gorge that requires the train to zigzag backwards and forwards like  a falling leaf. Get there early to bag a place on the roof of the train, the ideal vantage point to enjoy the changing terrain as the train drops in altitude.

Vilcabamba

This chilled-out Andean town has become something of a hippie hangout, meaning lots of backpacker-friendly hostels and bars, sustainable industries, hot springs and more.

Cuenca

Another of Ecuador’s superbly preserved colonial towns. Cuenca is a Unesco World Heritage site, and the centre of a hat-making industry that proves that Ecuador is the true home of the Panama hat.

Markets

Every highland town holds a weekly market, but none is more famous than Otovalo, where you can pick up everything from a hammock to a pig, alongside leather jackets and brightly-coloured hand-woven textiles.

The Rainforest

Ecuador has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to wildlife – 1600 species of birds, 4500 species of butterfly and more than 3500 species of orchid. The wild Eastern half of the country is for the most part impenetrable Amazonian rainforest, but it’s interspersed with small eco-lodges that offer a glimpse at life within one of the world’s greatest ecosystems

Cloud forests

Easier to reach from the capital, and comparatively more comfortable in climate, Ecuador’s cloud forests are wonderlands of bright bird life, gnarled trees, mist-swathed ridges and banks of orchids.

The Pacific coast

Enjoy palm-fringed beaches, wildlife and some great surfing at centres like Atacames, Canoa, Montañita and Salinas.

The Galapagos

Nominally part of Ecuador, but virtually a world on its own, the Galapagos offers a wildlife experience like nowhere else on earth. Island-hopping tours showcase seabirds, iguanas, tortoises and seals that are completely unafraid of humans. In the water, the snorkelling and diving is equally good.

Baños

A town under constant threat of volcanic eruption, Baños residents live every day as though it’s a holiday. Relax in one of the many local hot springs, use it as a hopping off point for a jungle tour, or marvel at the nightly fireworks show emanating from Volcan Tungurahua.

Volcanoes and the highlands

The volcanic spine of the Andes run down the middle of the country, and its studded with active and extinct volcanoes. The high sierra offers excellent walking as well as sleepy indigenous towns that come to life once a week for market days in a chaotic mix of bright Andean colours, flowing skirts and bowler hats.