Flying into Quito is a magical experience –the fog, low-hanging in a valley surrounded by Andes mountains, is lit up by the moon and the city’s many lights. If you’re visiting Ecuador, the magic doesn’t stop here – it’s a beautifully diverse country that just has a special feel about it. Walking to baggage claim or heading from Mariscal Sucre International Airport to Quito’s city center, you may notice signs or billboards with the country’s tourism slogan: “All You Need is Ecuador.” This phrase boasts the small country’s inherent super diversity; they say it’s like four worlds in one – the Sierra (the mid-range of the country, strung together by the Andes mountains and high volcanoes), the Coast (beach and fishing towns and coastal life), the Amazon (deep, untouched primary jungle with rivers, tall trees, birds and bees), and the Galapagos Islands (often regarded as one of the world’s top destinations to visit, a conglomeration of islands with innumerable species of flora and fauna).
After living in Ecuador for eight months, I haven’t seen it all – but I’ve gotten to know the culture, customs, and a fair amount of all the amazing places there are to visit. As I’ve spent the most time in the Sierra, that’s the area I know best, but I’ve also gotten a taste of the other regions and will be visiting the Galapagos later this year. If you’re heading to the Sierra, here’s an idea of where to go and what to do, based on my own personal explorations.
If you’re going to visit Ecuador, don’t miss the capital. As the first entire city to be declared as an UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is oozing with charm, culture, and things to do. Some say you can spend a week here without getting bored, but if you don’t have much time, two days will suffice – one in each main part of the city’s center. In Old Town, climb to the top of La Basilica del Voto Nacional (an unfinished cathedral with the best view of the sector from within its boundaries), walk through the cobblestone streets (the best day is Sunday because cars are prohibited from the streets), visit La Plaza de Independencia (a central park filled with beautiful trees that has a European feel to it), take a taxi to visit El Panecillo (a large hill with a virgin statue on it where you can see great views and try canelazo, a typical alcoholic drink made with cinnamon), or find some local spots to try typical foods such as humitas, colada morada, empanadas de viento, morocho, and ceviche de chochos. In New Town, take a morning trip to the TeleferiQo (a gondola that takes you to the top of the hill with breathtaking views of the city and its surrounding mountains), visit the Casa de Guayasamin (home and tribute to the famous Ecuadorian painter Oswaldo Guayasamin), take a stroll through Parque La Carolina (Quito’s largest park), or grab a bite and a beer at one of New Town’s many restaurants and bars. Since Quito is set at around 3000 meters or 9000 feet above sea level, it’s a good idea to take it easy during your first few days if you’ve just arrived in-country – this also makes it the perfect place to acclimatize before heading to any of the volcanoes.
Partial to my heart as this is the city in which I spent the most time, Riobamba is a cultural city in the center of the country and the heart of the Andes. The best reason to visit this city can be summed up in two words: local experience. A lot of tourists skip this city or spend only one night before taking the train or heading to the Chimborazo volcano, but it’s worth spending more time if you are interested in getting a taste of local Ecuadorian life. The capital of the Chimborazo province, it has the highest indigenous population in all of the country, and it is surrounded by several towering volcanoes, including the famous Chimborazo, which is the tallest mountain in Ecuador, its summit the farthest point from the center of the Earth given its proximity to the equator. Visit the train station, walk around the cobblestone streets of the colonial part or along the wide, palm-lined boulevard of the modern part, and don’t miss the Saturday market in Plaza Roja, where the indigenous come from all around the region to display their colorful artesanias.
It may be impossible to find anyone who doesn’t love this city. Lined by beautiful cobblestone streets and colonial architecture, rivers dotted by trees and surrounded by rolling hills, the city has a certain modern European feel to it. It is popular among tourists and expats, and even has a United States influence, not only due to foreigners flocking there but also because many of its local inhabitants have migrated north in past years. It’s a pleasant place to spend several days – visit the blue domed new cathedral set next to the large, shady central park, stop for a coffee after strolling along the Calle Larga next to the river, visit the Mirador de Turi which boasts an expansive view of the whole city and its surrounding hills, or head for a soak in the nearby hot springs at Baños de Cuenca. If you have time, don’t miss a day trip to the Cajas National Park, where you can choose from a number of well-marked trails to take you through breathtaking scenery among peaks and lagoons.
If you’re heading south from Cuenca and want to veer off the tourist track, this is the city for you. Houses covering rolling hills, green trees against red desert rock, and a river running through the city, Loja is known throughout Ecuador for the high-quality coffee the region produces. The city itself is charming; it is clean, environmentally aware, ripe with culture, and it’s preserved its local feel as many visitors skip it. You are bound to find cultural activities, events and concerts as there are many musicians there – in fact, it’s known as the musical capital of Ecuador. When sightseeing, visit the “Puerta de la Ciudad” (Gate of the City), a beautiful structure at the entrance to the historic center that has a museum in it, and walk a few blocks up to the mirador to catch a beautiful view of the entire city. Don’t forget to sample their well-known coffee at a local coffee shop, and try the “tamales lojanos,” famous tamales made with chicken, pork, or cheese.
If you are traveling all the way to Peru by bus from Ecuador, Vilcabamba is your perfect last stop in the south. A not-so-well-kept secret, in recent years the town has been flooded with foreigners, by tourists and expats who have settled there. However, don’t let that stop you from visiting and discovering Vilcabamba’s magic for yourself, as there is plenty to go around. Set in a wide valley commonly known as the “Valley of Longevity,” the area has more of a desert feel to it than the central Sierra farther north, and has been revered for the longevity of its residents’ lives. If you’ve been missing some typical gringo treats or overpriced smoothies, this is the place to find them in the south – or, it’s just a place to relax and detox for a few days, as there are many beautiful hiking trails as well as spa treatments. I fully recommend staying at Hosteria Izhcayluma for several days (if not longer, as most people end up extending their stay), for it is a destination in itself. They offer a resort-like experience on a backpacker’s budget, complete with a pool, free yoga classes for the guests, a spa, and a restaurant that serves up breathtaking views alongside its delicious food.
Even just visiting one of these five cities would be enough to get a taste of Ecuador’s beauty – and this is only the tip of the iceberg. Just within the Sierra there is much more to see and do, not to mention that entering a different region like the coast or the Amazon will feel like you are crossing into a completely new country. If you make it to Ecuador, feel free to ignore my advice – I’m sure that you will still discover its magic on your own.