Moon Ecuador & the Galápagos Islands
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- Flexible itineraries for spending time in the Sierras, the Amazon, the coast, Quito, and the Galápagos Islands
- Strategic advice for ethical travelers, adventure lovers, budget travelers, history and culture buffs, wellness seekers, and more
- Must-see highlights and unique experiences: Hike through the Amazon rainforest, paddle across lily-covered lagoons, and spot camian, tapir, or pink river dolphins. Dive with hammerhead sharks in the Galápagos, cycle the epic waterfall route in Baños, and watch the sun rise over the peaks where the Amazon meets the Andes. Wander cobbled colonial streets and gaze up at snow-capped volcanoes rising from wildflower-strewn grasslands. Take a surfing lesson in Montañita, and relax on the beach with a mojito in hand
- How to ethically experience Ecuador like an insider, support local and sustainable businesses, and respectfully engage with the indigenous communities, including those with shamanic traditions
- Expert insight from local author Bethany Pitts on where to eat, how to get around, where to stay, and how to avoid crowds
- Full-color photos and detailed maps throughout
- Reliable background on the landscape, climate, wildlife, and history, as well as health and safety advice, environmental issues, and common customs and etiquette
- Handy tools including a Spanish phrasebook, volunteer opportunities, packing suggestions, and travel tips for families with kids, seniors, travelers with disabilities, and LGBTQ travelers
Exploring more of South America? Check out Moon Chile or Moon Colombia.
DISCOVER Ecuador & the Galápagos Islands
10 TOP EXPERIENCES
Planning Your Trip
The Best of Ecuador
EXPLORE INDIGENOUS CULTURES
14 Days of Ecoadventures
Beach and Mountain Getaway
WITH MORE TIME
During my first visit to Ecuador, I wandered the colonial streets of Quito; marveled at the luminous water of the Quilotoa crater lake; and watched jewel-bright hummingbirds from a cloud forest lodge. It was all unimaginably exotic and beautiful. But it was my Amazon experience that forever stamped this country into my heart. On a moonlit canoe journey under the Milky Way, I glided silently across a lagoon amid giant lily pads illuminated by fireflies, accompanied by an orchestra of insects and frogs. Upon returning home, I promised myself that I would return one day.
I fulfilled my promise. That was 10 years ago; since then I have fallen more in love with Ecuador every day. Formerly a restless traveler, I have found my place in the world.
I have spent the last decade discovering the treasures within the borders of this diminutive nation. From my home, I can walk to beaches, mangroves, and tropical forests, where I have spotted whales, iguanas, howler monkeys, hummingbirds, and blue-footed boobies. In less than a day, I can be in the Amazon, Andes, or Galápagos Islands. It is no surprise to anyone who has spent time in Ecuador that this is the most biodiverse country in the world per unit area.
The people are as varied as the landscape. The Amazon alone is home to 11 indigenous nationalities, including two uncontacted tribes, each with its own language and ancestral traditions. This is a country where shamans invoke jungle spirits in ancient ceremonies and Kichwa farmers gather at the top of a gorilla-shaped hill to conduct rituals asking for rain.
Despite its astonishing wealth of attractions, much of Ecuador’s potential remains largely untapped, offering perhaps its best hope for a sustainable future. This book highlights destinations and projects that help conserve its natural ecosystems and benefit its warm, welcoming people, while providing visitors with authentic experiences.
Be prepared, though. A holiday romance with Ecuador might just turn into the love of your life.
10 TOP EXPERIENCES
1 Hike and Bike the Waterfall Route: The 17km Ruta de las Cascadas takes intrepid cyclists past a series of spectacular waterfalls set amid lush mountain scenery.
2 Wander Amid Colonial Architecture: Gaze up at cathedral spires and get lost along cobblestone streets. The best place to revisit the colonial past is in charming Cuenca, nestled amid the stunning Andes.
3 Wake Up at an Amazon Jungle Lodge: Experience nature’s impressive orchestration of life like you can nowhere else. You might glimpse caimans, monkeys, or pink river dolphins.
4 Soak Up the Surf Scene in Montañita: Ride waves ’til the sun goes down, then sip a mojito on Cocktail Alley, the epicenter of Montañita’s legendary nightlife.
5 Watch the Sun Rise or Set Over the Vilcabamba Valley: The light shifts dramatically, illuminating lush green slopes and craggy peaks.
6 Dive and Snorkel: Swim alongside marine marvels like sea turtles, sea lion pups, and whale sharks.
7 Get a Condor’s Eye View of Quito: The climb up the tower of La Basílica del Voto Nacional isn’t for the faint of heart, but those that dare are rewarded with a spectacular view of the Old City.
8 Explore Volcanic Landscapes: Laguna Cuicocha, Laguna Quilotoa, and the blackened lava trails in Sierra Negra offer a chance to wander through otherworldly terrain.
9 See Evolution in Action in the Galápagos: Learn about the science and history of this unique ecosystem at the Charles Darwin Research Station, San Cristobal’s Interpretation Center, and the Tortoise Reserves on Santa Cruz.
10 Go Bird-watching: Admire hundreds of species of birds—from Mindo’s Andean cocks-of-the-rock and colorful toucans to the Galápagos’ blue-footed boobies.
Planning Your Trip
Where to Go
A dramatic backdrop of Andean peaks and snowcapped volcanoes adds to the delight of exploring the cobblestone streets and elegant plazas of Quito’s Old Town, one of the best preserved colonial cities in Latin America and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For a condor’s-eye view, brave the climb to the top of the basilica’s tower. The capital also hosts the country’s best restaurants, museums, and nightlife, with a vibrant cultural scene. North of Quito, the village of Mindo, set amid lush cloud forest, is paradise for birders and nature lovers, while Maquipucuna is the best place in the world to see spectacled bears.
The northern Sierra’s most famous attraction is the Otavalo textile market, one of the oldest and largest on the continent. Throughout the region, indigenous artisans practice traditional crafts such as weaving and embroidery, and villages such as San Clemente offer the chance to share the Andean Kichwa way of life. The cloud-forested slopes of Intag provide some of the richest biodiversity on the planet and the opportunity to support local conservation efforts. Farther north, the eerily beautiful El Ángel Ecological Reserve protects some of the country’s most pristine high-altitude páramo (grassland).
The Avenue of the Volcanoes is a jaw-dropping procession of some of the world’s highest peaks, with the snowy flanks of picture-perfect Cotopaxi and colossal Chimborazo easily accessible as day trips. The volcanic crater lake Quilotoa, with its luminous turquoise water, is one of Ecuador’s most iconic sights. Baños is a hub for spa treatments and adventure sports, including a downhill bike ride past a series of impressive waterfalls. The idyllic colonial town of Alausí is a charming jumping-off point for some truly spectacular hikes, including to the Ozogoche lakes and to a viewpoint overlooking the Devil’s Nose railway line. Much of the region is steeped in myth and legend, hosting unique celebrations fusing ancient indigenous and Catholic traditions.
Forget itineraries and wander the colonial streets of Cuenca, Ecuador’s most charming city, gazing up at spires, cupolas, and geranium-covered wrought-iron balconies. Explore the country’s most important Inca ruins at Ingapirca, where the sun temple still stands. Be as active or decadent as you like in picturesque Vilcabamba, hiking and biking in the dramatic scenery or taking it in from a hammock after a relaxing massage. Visit rural villages for traditional crafts such as woven shawls, handmade guitars, filigree jewelry, and beaded necklaces. Find wilderness in the windswept páramos of El Cajas National Park and the untamed forests of Podocarpus.
The Oriente and the Amazon Basin
These mystical forests host nature’s most intricate and impressive orchestration of life, where 1 hectare (2.5 acres) can contain as many tree species as all of North America. In a single river journey, a visitor might spot pink river dolphins swimming alongside the canoe, gigantic iridescent blue morpho butterflies flitting overhead, monkeys peering down from the branches, and macaws screeching in the treetops. The Oriente is also home to several indigenous peoples, including two uncontacted tribes, many of whom still live by hunting and gathering. Powerful shamans communicate between the living forest and its human inhabitants and, it is rumored, can shape-shift into jaguars.
North and Central Coasts and Lowlands
The north coast is more lush and tropical than the south, with Afro-Ecuadorian-influenced music and cuisine. The crescent bay of Mompiche is a highlight and one of the region’s many good surf breaks. Inland, Playa de Oro is a community-run ecotourism project where wildcats are released into primary rainforest. Farther south, near-deserted beaches can be found in the province of Manabí. Machalilla National Park protects many Galápagos species, such as blue-footed boobies, and is the best place to see humpback whales. The small town of Montecristi is the birthplace of the misnamed “Panama” hat, which has been made there since pre-Columbian times. The indigenous Tsáchila people near Santo Domingo keep their unique ancestral traditions alive and hold shamanic ceremonies in a candlelit underground chamber.
Guayaquil and the Southern Coast
Ecuador’s largest city has begun to stand up as a tourist destination, undergoing a major redevelopment in recent years. To the west, Montañita is the star attraction of Santa Elena province, with a world-class point break, legendary nightlife, and hallucinatory sunsets. The neighboring beaches all have their own character and charm, and most have good surf breaks. Inland is a jungly interior dotted with waterfalls. South of Guayaquil, the infrequently visited province of El Oro includes the charming mountain town of Zaruma, the petrified forest at Puyango, the dramatic labyrinthine rock formations rising from the páramo at Cerro de Arcos, and the lush green birding paradise of Buenaventura.
The Galápagos Islands
The legendary Galápagos Islands, located about 1,000 kilometers (620 mi) west of Ecuador’s mainland, are in fact the peaks of underwater volcanoes. Because the islands developed in complete isolation, their flora and fauna are found nowhere else on earth. Visitors will encounter land iguanas and giant tortoises fearlessly roving the lunar scenery, with blue-footed boobies and frigate birds soaring overhead. Snorkelers can play with curious seal pups and admire the sunlight dappling on the shells of sea turtles, while marine iguanas graze seaweed from the rocks below. Those who venture farther underwater will discover some of the world’s best dive sites, with giant manta rays, hammerheads, and whale sharks.
Know Before You Go
When to Go
Ecuador’s climate is so varied that it’s impossible to make sweeping generalizations. The Sierra, Amazon, and coast all have their own climate, and within these are countless microclimates, often depending on altitude. The good news is that there is no bad time to visit.
Broadly speaking, the coast is sunny and hot (around 30°C/86°F) from December to May, with occasional torrential downpours. It’s cooler (20-25°C/68-77°F) and grayer the rest of the year, especially August to November. The climate in the Galápagos more or less mirrors the mainland coast. In the Sierra, it’s often sunny during the day and chilly at night. Daytime temperatures average 15-20°C (59-68°F), occasionally peaking at 25°C (77°F), with nights falling to 7-8°C (45-46°F) and sometimes dropping to freezing. The driest, warmest months are June to September, with December to May the wettest. Whatever the season, Andean weather can change very quickly. In the Amazon, the wettest period is April to May and the driest is August to October. Year-round, daily highs average 30°C (86°F), with nighttime lows around 20°C (68°F). Rainstorms tend to be torrential and brief.
There are no national high or low tourism seasons, but accommodations are likely to be booked up—and may be double in price—around New Year’s Day, Carnival, and Easter.
Passports, Visas, and Entry Requirements
Travelers from the vast majority of countries do not require a visa to enter Ecuador and will be given a 90-day permit stamp upon arrival. This permit can only be issued once per year (i.e., if you are granted one on April 1, 2019, you cannot request another until April 1, 2020). A passport with validity of at least six months is required. You may be asked for proof of onward travel (a reservation for a bus ticket to Peru or Colombia is sufficient). If you are traveling from a country with a risk of yellow fever transmission, including Peru, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia, you may be asked for a vaccination certificate, which is valid for life. Check with the World Health Organization for the current list of affected countries.
To enter the Galápagos, it is necessary to show a reservation for a Galápagos hotel or cruise boat, or a letter of invitation from a local resident of the islands. A health insurance requirement may be introduced. Check with your tour operator or hotel for the latest information.
If you know beforehand that you would like to stay in Ecuador beyond 90 days, consider applying for a longer visa with your local Ecuadorian embassy before your trip, to avoid formalities in Ecuador. Alternatively, the 90-day visa can be extended once, by paying a fee. After that, it’s possible to apply for various longer-term tourist and resident visas. Since February 2018, overstaying involves a fine.
See the Visas and Officialdom section of the Essentials chapter for more details.
All visitors should make sure their routine immunizations are up to date, along with hepatitis A and tetanus. Those whose activities may put them at extra risk should also consider hepatitis B, rabies, typhoid, and tuberculosis vaccinations. Yellow fever immunization is recommended for those traveling to the Amazon region and Esmeraldas province. A yellow fever vaccination certificate is required when entering Ecuador from a country where it is present and is valid for life. There is a low risk of malaria in the Amazon basin; bite avoidance is advised, rather than antimalarial medication.
Ecuador is considered high risk for the Zika virus, which is usually mosquito-borne. The official advice is that pregnant women should postpone non-essential travel to Ecuador. Women should avoid becoming pregnant while in Ecuador and for eight weeks after leaving.
Ecuador has two international airports, both modern and efficient: the Mariscal Sucre International Airport, located near the town of Tababela, about 12 kilometers (7.5 mi) east of Quito, and José Joaquín de Olmedo International Airport in Guayaquil. A network of domestic airports across the country can be accessed in under an hour by plane from Quito. Guayaquil has direct domestic connections to Quito and the Galápagos. With some exceptions, mainland flights are generally economical (from $40 one way). Flying to the Galápagos is much more expensive (at least $400 round-trip).
Ecuador’s bus system is comprehensive and economical, and the roads are generally good. For short journeys, taxis are readily available and affordable. For longer journeys, hiring a driver is an option, but it’s not cheap. Car rental is more budget friendly, but driving in urban areas can be quite alarming and tough to avoid, as rental companies are only present in the largest cities.
The Best of Ecuador
Ecuador is so compact that, if you plan it right and are prepared to move around, you can see a decent chunk of the country in just two weeks, traveling by bus. If you have an extra week and the available budget, consider adding a visit to the Galápagos Islands, easily accessible from Quito or Guayaquil.
Days 1 & 2
Arrive in Quito, check into your hotel, and then explore Old Town, taking in the churches, plazas, and museums of the historical center, before heading to the Museo Fundación Guayasamín and Capilla del Hombre, just north of New Town. While in Quito, dine on the beautifully preserved colonial street of La Ronda.
OPTION 1: MINDO
Take an early morning bus northwest from Quito to Mindo, where you can visit a butterfly farm and hummingbird garden, or go hiking, birding, or biking in the cloud forest. In the evenings, choose one of the excellent restaurants on Gourmet Avenue. When you’re done exploring Mindo, head back to Quito early enough to continue to Machachi in the Central Sierra.
OPTION 2: OTAVALO
Take an early morning bus from Quito to Otavalo, and spend time exploring the surrounding countryside or visiting a Kichwa village. If you’re in Otavalo on a Saturday, don’t miss the textile market. Head back to Quito and continue to Machachi.
From Machachi, spend three days in the Central Sierra. Start your exploration with a tour of the Cotopaxi National Park, including the walk to the José Rivas Refuge at 4,800 meters (15,750 ft.). Continue south from the park to Latacunga and visit the historical center, or head to the Brazales neighborhood to see the traditional barley toasting furnaces.
From Latacunga, take a day trip to the volcanic crater lake Quilotoa and the nearby village of Tigua, famous for traditional paintings of Andean scenes.
Travel from Latacunga to Baños and get active (hiking, rafting, climbing, or bridge jumping) or take it easy at the thermal baths, followed by a massage. From Baños, rent a mountain bike and enjoy the Ruta de las Cascadas, a downhill bike ride past a series of spectacular waterfalls.
OPTION 1: COCA
For a rainforest immersion, travel from Baños to Quito, then on to Coca by air or overnight bus.
From Coca, either visit a jungle lodge in the Yasuní National Park for a three-day/two-night package or take a three-day/two-night combined tour to Yasuní and Limoncocha (both options should be reserved in advance).
Arrive back in Coca and return to Quito by air or bus.
OPTION 2: SANTA ELENA
Take a one-day “rainforest lite” tour from Baños to Puyo before heading to the coast on the overnight bus to Santa Elena.
While on the coast, you have several options. You can head to Montañita for surf lessons, swim in the horsehoe bay of Ayangue, take a tour to Isla de la Plata for wildlife viewing, or simply relax on the sand. Pick your favorite activities before returning to Quito.
On your final day in day in Quito, get your last glimpses of the city before heading home.
14 Days of Ecoadventures
This two-week itinerary includes some of the country’s best examples of eco- and community led tourism in the cloud forest, rainforest, and Sierra. You’ll see a side of Ecuador rarely seen by visitors, while directly supporting environmental conservation and the preservation of indigenous cultures.
Arrive in Quito and spend the day exploring the churches, plazas, and museums of the historical district, before dining at Tandana, a nonprofit ecological restaurant with wonderful views.
Days 2 & 3
OPTION 1: MAQUIPUCUNA RESERVE & BEAR LODGE
From Quito, head north to Maquipucuna Reserve & Bear Lodge,
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