Ecuador, beyond the Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos Islands – with its giant tortoises, blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas and their other exotic creatures – is one of the places we recommend visiting before you die.

However, with just two weeks to see Ecuador, we plan a route that does not include the archipelago. We decided to visit the mountains, the jungles of the south and finally the coast. More than one said that we were crazy and thought that Ecuador did not offer enough attractions to spend two weeks without going to the islands.

The reality is that Ecuador offers more natural and cultural attractions than most countries and two weeks is barely enough to to start enjoying yourself.

The country is much more than the islands that captivated Charles Darwin. We decided to visit five sites: Quito, an accommodation in the jungle, the colonial city of Cuenca, the surfer town Montanita and Guayaquil, the largest city in the country.

We planned the trip ourselves, using guidebooks, the internet and recommendations from friends who live in the country. Travel agents do not employ or hire tours, but we let ourselves be led by the hand by a few relatives I have there in Guayaquil.

Our objective was to experience the diversity of the country, just as an Ecuadorian would.

First we visit Quito, with its spectacular volcanoes and a revitalized historic downtown, crowded squares, churches and colonial architecture. In the morning we sat on a bench iat the City Square – the central plaza – and we watched couples holding hands, executives hurrying off, Indigenous women selling handicrafts and the shoeshine boys.

We waited an hour in queue to visit the Government Palace, where we viewed its grand ballroom, the room where the president meets with his Cabinet and a section with portraits of every president.

From the cable car to Pichincha volcano we enjoyed a panoramic view of the city. We failed to reach the volcano’s summit due to the low cloud cover that day.

Then we fly to Coca, oil producing city in the Amazon jungle, where we took a boat that zipped us to the Yachana Lodge on the Napo River, a tributary of the Amazon. We walked during the day and at night, observing monkeys, toucans, bats, lizards and many insects.

The hotel – with rooms that have private terraces with hammocks – is administered by the Yachana nonprofit Foundation, that also runs a technical school for indigenous students and mestizos in the area.

In the jungle we went to the beautiful Cuenca, known for its cobblestone streets and its craftsmen. We arrived on a bad day, a Sunday, when museums and shops were closed. We saw what we could, including The Tabernacle – the old cathedral, now a religious museum – and the Museum of Modern Art. In the afternoon we walked along the river and admired Tomebamba colonial houses on either side. We sat on the steps of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the newest of the two cathedrals that exist in the central square.

In the stillness of Cuenca we go to the clutter of Guayaquil harbor where we boarded a bus for a three-hour trip that left us in the fishing village of Montanita, a surfer’s paradise.

My husband, who surfs in California, tested a balsa-wood board, very common in Ecuador.

After a day at the beach we return to Guayaquil. The largest city in Ecuador was renovated during the last decade and a beautiful Malecón attracts both tourists and locals.

North of the Malecón is the bohemian neighborhood of Las Peñas, the oldest of the city, there you will find are many art galleries and rebuilt colonial houses. We climbed the 400 steps to the lighthouse and as a reward we enjoyed a spectacular view of the city.

After a hectic two weeks, we left many things out: a bus trip along the Volcano Avenue, a car trip on the Ruta del Sol along the Pacific coast and camping in a national park, not to mention the Galapagos.

On our next trip – we will certainly return – we will take a detour and visit the islands.

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