Ecuador is one of the smaller countries of South America, but even so, a whole lot of biodiversity and culture is packed into its borders. You can pretty much come to Ecuador and fulfill your South American dream, no matter what it is: from meeting Andean peoples in ponchos and bowler hats, to swimming with pink dolphins of the Amazonian rivers, to exploring Colonial Spanish cities perfectly painted and preserved, and you can even see whales, dolphins, or the Blue-Footed Boobies of Ecuador's coast made famous by the Galapagos. In Ecuador, there's a little bit of something for everyone here.
Named after its geographical position of being directly on the equator, Ecuador has a consistent climate all year round with no real seasons per se, but temperatures completely depend on altitude. Since the mountains of the Andes can get quite high, you can experience snow on the equator, and then a few hours later, be at the beach.
Ecuador is also an easy country to travel in. Not only are the distances between attractions short by South American standards, but it's a well-developed country with modern infrastructure and good roads. To make matters even easier, Ecuador uses the US dollar as its official currency.
For someone who is interested in going to South America, but perhaps has never traveled there before, Ecuador is the perfect introduction to a huge continent that can be at times daunting and difficult to navigate.
The following is a list of some of our favorite experiences in Ecuador, followed by a few challenges we faced while traveling there.
Usually, Tim and I avoid capital cities in Latin America because they are crowded and polluted with not much to offer as far as the types of things we like to see. But Quito is an exception to this rule. Situated across many steep hilltops and blessed with sunny days following chilly nights, Quito is not just Ecuador's capital, it's also the largest Spanish Colonial city in the Americas, and a gorgeously preserved Colonial city as well. You can spend days wandering through its web-like roads, peering into ornately-decorated churches, and sitting at cafes on cobble-stoned streets.
Mindo and Cloud Forests
If you like the biodiversity and the lush greenery of the rainforest, but you don't want to feel like you're melting away in the heat and humidity as you hike through the jungle, then perhaps the cloud forest is perfect for you. Cloud forests are generally at a higher altitude with a temperate climate and are obviously known for their fog, but also for their abundance of flora and fauna. In Ecuador, Mindo is the usual jumping-off point to experience cloud forests first-hand, and the surrounding area is filled with waterfalls, butterfly sanctuaries, and hummingbird parks.
Whales and the Coast
When it comes to sunny tropical beaches, Ecuador cannot compare to the beaches of Colombia or most Central American countries. This is because of the consistent cloud cover that seems to hang over Ecuador's coastline, and the temperature of its Pacific waters might be considered chilly to some, though beautiful beaches and occasional perfect days do exist. But what Ecuador does have is a whole lot of marine life, and during Humpback Whale breeding season, there's no better place to be.
From Puerto Lopez, it's a cheap boat ride ($20 per person) to see the whales waving their fins, tail slapping, and breaching into the air. June to September is the best time to go, and you can also combine this experience with a ride to Isla de la Plata, a tour that's considered to be Ecuador's “Poor Man's Galapagos". Here you will most likely see some of the species that the Galapagos Islands are famous for, such as the Magnificent Frigatebird with its red throat on the males, or the Blue-Footed Boobie.
Of course, the Galapagos Islands themselves are Ecuador's number one tourist attraction, but because of their distance and cost (and the fact that they're islands we can't get to on a motorcycle), Tim and I decided that they should be reserved for a trip in and of itself.
Quilotoa Crater and Cotopaxi Volcano
Quilotoa Crater is a picturesque dormant volcanic crater that is now filled with a bright teal-colored lake. It's located high up in the Andes mountains at 12,800 ft. (3,900 meters), and is easily accessible as the parking lot nearly comes right up to the rim. There are hiking trails and camping spots all around, but what we enjoyed most was riding around the area and experiencing the local Andean cultures who mix their Spanish with indigenous languages and sell incredible wool and alpaca ponchos and crafts.
Cotopaxi is Ecuador's Mt. Fuji: a snow-covered, perfectly conical volcano with a national park around it. Unfortunately, national parks in Ecuador don't allow motorcycles in (more on that later), but we were able to hitch along with some local guides to get into the park and snap some pics. Ecuador also hosts a bunch of other high-altitude national parks, many of which we didn't get a chance to visit, though they sound well worth the effort from talking to other travelers.
Going to the Amazon is the highlight for many visitors to South America, and Ecuador is a great place to get into the thick of the jungle, meet some indigenous peoples, and see some unique wildlife. Unfortunately, joining a tour is an expensive investment, from several hundred dollars per person to thousands of dollars, and we discovered that not much of that money goes directly to the local communities.
Also, the Amazon region in South America is best navigated by river, not by motorcycle. To get the full Amazon experience, many people hop on boats, whether dug-out canoes to jungle lodges, or passenger ferries to far off places like Iquitos, Peru or Manaus, Brazil. So Tim and I decided that we would most likely do an extensive Amazon journey at a later date when we find the right tour and don't have a motorcycle with us to worry about.
Luckily, we were still able to get a good feel for the Amazon rainforest by traveling by bike from Misahaullí to EL Coca and then to Tena. We stayed in cabins along the Napo River in Misahuallí, learned about indigenous people at the MACCO museum, got up-close and personal to lots of animals at the Coca Zoo, and then swam in waterfalls at Tena where butterflies fluttered around us. It was pretty perfect.
Challenges we faced in Ecuador
Ecuador is no stranger to tourism, and people have learned that tourists are wealthy targets. Tim got his phone stolen outside of Quito, along with our friend at the same time, someone tried to unzip the pockets of a third friend to get her phone, and another traveling couple we know got their camera stolen at a festival in Quito. We've seen small children put on a show for us while their parents came up behind to snatch our wallet (did not work thankfully), so pickpocketing is a full-time job for some people in Ecuador. We had not seen anything like this level of petty robbery previously on our trip, so all travelers to Ecuador, keep your belongings close!
No Motorcycles Allowed in National Parks
Obviously this only affects those of us traveling by motorcycle, but it was a point of frustration for us because all other vehicles are let into the national parks, areas which boast lots of scenic roads that we really wanted to see. Just not motorcycles. I've heard that the reason for this is the noise that motorcycles produce scare the wildlife, which is a fair point, but our bike and the type of bikes mostly found in Ecuador (around 250 cc's) are quiet, and they are not your typical American rumbling Harleys. Also, as in all of Latin America, people have no problem blaring music at all sorts of decibels from every car and storefront. Noise is a part of daily life out here, so I'm not sure why the Ecuadorian park service has a thing against motorcycles only.
Compared to its neighbors, Ecuador is an expensive country. It's not just expensive for tourists, but imports (such as motorcycles and parts) cost twice as much as in the States. Because Ecuador uses US dollars, it's easy to compare. So even though Ecuadorian salaries are lower than US salaries, vehicles and many goods cost twice as much as we would pay, which makes it hard for an Ecuadorian person to get out of poverty, and hard for us to fix our bike when things go wrong.
Having just come out of stigmatized Colombia, we entered Ecuador and couldn't believe how many tourists there were. Obviously we are also tourists, so it's a hypocritical thing to not like them, but the amount of tourists swarming around a single waterfall in Baños, or all pressed up against each other in the thermal pools is a bit alarming, and definitely took away from the charm of the place.
Despite having a bunch of motorcycle trouble in Ecuador, and therefore having to stay about a month longer than we'd expected, we enjoyed our time in Ecuador to the fullest. It's so easy to make loops around the country, each time coming back to the amenities, beauty, and convenience of Quito situated at its heart. So I would say that all around, Ecuador is a gorgeous and enjoyable country to travel in.
For its size, there are a remarkable amount of different sights and experiences to be had in Ecuador. When it comes to South American nature and culture, you can get a good taste of whatever it is you're searching for, even Incan ruins which can be found as far north as Quito. Ecuador also has an abundance of different climates, and you can pick and choose your temperature and ecosystem according to your altitude. So if you want to experience South America in a reliable and user-friendly way, Ecuador is the country to come to.
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