Ecuador’s main tourist attraction is located more than 600 miles off the coast of the mainland, the Galapagos Islands. And with many endemic species, breathtaking scenery, and world-class diving, it’s easy to see why the volcanic archipelago is so popular. But there are plenty of trips in mainland Ecuador worth considering as well, whether you’re interested in seeing wildlife, visiting historical sites, or exploring beautiful landscapes…
The ‘Train to the Clouds’ Luxury Rail Journey
The Tren Crucero 4 day train journey takes you from the bustling, metropolitan hub of Guayaquil, to the colonial capital of Quito (and vice versa). The first day is spent travelling through the lush, flat plains of the Pacific Coastal region, before beginning the ascent into the clouds, which will take you over 3,500 metres above sea level. The train stops in a number of traditional villages to give you time to explore on foot, and also visits local haciendas and markets, including one of the oldest and most impressive markets in South America, Otavalo. One of the highlights of the journey is the daunting ‘Devil’s Nose’ pass, a short 6 mile stretch of track zigzagging over 450 metres into the mountains. The ‘Avenue of Volcanoes’ is another exciting section of the railway, which snakes past almost 20 volcanoes, including Cotopaxi and Chimborazo.
An Amazon Jungle Experience in the Yasuni Biosphere Reserve
The Ecuadorian Amazon has some of the best jungle lodges in all of South America, all of which are completely committed to protecting the delicate rainforest eco-system. The Yasuni National Park is the most visited section in Ecuador, and is home to a hugely diverse array of wildlife and even two uncontacted tribes. The only way to reach the jungle is by plane or boat, and most visitors arriving from Quito or Guayaquil will travel by a combination of both. Each lodge offers a different programme, but trips to the Amazon typically involve canoe rides and jungle trail treks by day, and twilight walks by night, all led by experienced guides. Some lodges even have canopy walkways which allow you to get up close and personal with some of the treetop wildlife, and offer visits to local indigenous communities as well.
The ‘Swing at the End of the World’ and the Devil’s Cauldron in Baños
The setting for the small town of Baños, in Ecuador’s subtropical centre, is absolutely beautiful. Nestled in a lush valley and surrounded by waterfalls, forests, and thermal springs, it’s a side to Ecuador most tourists don’t get to see, which is why it’s such a good destination for a 2-3 day trip from Quito or Guayaquil, especially for travellers wanting to get off the beaten path. The area has some great spa hotels offering stunning views of the surrounding countryside, and the famous ‘swing at the end of the world’ is just a short hike from the town centre and offers more incredible views, this time of the impressive Tungurahua volcano. Nearby, the ‘devil’s cauldron’ waterfall is a popular attraction, as is the jungle town of Puyo and the ‘avenue of waterfalls’, but mainly the area is just perfect for outdoor activities.
The Cloud Forest Reserve of Bellavista
The cloud forests of northern Ecuador are a great alternative to the Amazon for travellers who can’t afford a luxurious jungle stay but still want to experience the tropical forests of South America. A cloud forest is essentially a high altitude jungle, steeped in mist and experiencing frequent rainfall, which makes them incredibly lush, bright, and the perfect environment for a range of species, particularly butterflies. Located less than 2 hours’ drive from Quito, the Bellavista Reserve is a haven for hundreds of bird and insect species, and even some of the country’s rarer mammals, such as the spectacled bear. Hiking through the valleys, swimming in waterfalls, and birdwatching are among the things to do in the reserve, but the peaceful surroundings is what makes the cloud forest one of the best trips in mainland Ecuador.
History and Nature in Cuenca
For a historical snippet of colonial Ecuador, look no further than Cuenca. It’s the smaller, less touristic version of Quito, where the pace of life is slow, ancient handicrafts are still practiced, and traditional clothing is still popular. It’s easily reached from Guayaquil by either bus or plane, and is a great stop-off for travellers on their way to Peru. Visitors also heading to Machu Picchu on their trip could visit the biggest Inca ruin in Ecuador as a warm-up, Ingapirca. For hikers, the nearby Cajas National Park is the place to go if you want to experience trekking in a glacial valley. There are more than 250 lakes and lagoons to explore in the area, as well as the fairytale forests of ‘paper trees’ which can only be found in the high altitude Andes, over 4,000 metres above sea level.