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Ecuador
Cut through by the equator, Ecuador is a small country with a varied landscape and rich diversity of endemic flora and fauna. A journey of 125 miles takes you from sunny beaches, up into cool Andean grasslands, and down into tropical rain forests. Ecuador also includes the Galápagos Islands, about 620 miles west in the Pacific. Adventure travel doesn’t get much better, whether you’re hiking the world’s highest active volcano, Cotopaxi, canoeing the Amazon River, or swimming behind a white-tipped shark in the Galápagos. In the charming colonial towns and mountainside villages, you’ll find a melting pot of ethnic communities, many offering colorful marketplace wares, hearty traditional dishes, and artisanal chocolates.
The warmest time is December to May. June to September offers cooler and drier conditions for trekking the Andean highlands around Quito. Humpback whales also migrate along the Pacific coast during this time. October and November bring fewer tourists and variable weather—like sunny mornings and rainy afternoons. The western Amazon region is always wet, but less so August to November. The Galápagos is spectacular year-round, and if you’re on a multi-day cruise that restricts visitor numbers, you can snorkel the clear waters during the warm season of December to May and hardly notice that this is also the most popular time.

Direct flights from major North American cities now land at Ecuador’s two international airports. Quito’s slick new award-winning airport, Mariscal Sucre, has routes from New York’s JFK, Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Dallas, and Fort Lauderdale (as of February 2016). Guayaquil’s José Joaquín de Olmedo International Airport has direct flights from JFK and Fort Lauderdale. Otherwise, stopovers at other major Latin American cities include Panama City, Lima, and Bogotá.

Traveling Ecuador’s dramatic terrain is memorable in itself. Fleets of comfortable buses link major cities, coastal towns, and many villages. Request a ticket for the ejecutivo or autobús de lujo to travel with AC, comfy seats, and the guarantee of no standing travelers. Thanks to a multimillion-dollar revamp, the luxurious Tren Crucero (Cruise Train) winds along Andean peaks, past snow-fringed volcanoes, and into Guayaquil. Check trenecuador.com for multi-day trips. While inexpensive yellow cabs circle through major cities, renting a car proves a great way to navigate the main avenues. A series of well-built roads, including the Pan-American Highway, make driving simple. Drivers over 21, and with an international license, will find it cheaper and easier to rent a car and deal with road police along the way. However, heading into the winding highlands takes more planning, as GPS and phone signals fade and signage becomes nonexistent.

Potatoes and corn play a vital role in most dishes; Andean markets in particular are full of them. The 200 varieties of spud are often used in soups like locro, or the street favorite choclos (corn doused in cheese, guacamole, and cream). Seco de chivo (goat stew) and ceviche—with corn, of course—are common in most restaurants, though the country’s pièce de résistance is a fried rodent. Yes, cuy (guinea pig) performs an integral part of indigenous culture, not only for keeping as a pet but for its purported healing powers and sweet, smoky taste. Intrepid diners may want to wash it down with Ecuador’s corn beer, chicha de jora, or the sugarcane-based aguardiente—a sharp, potent, and dance-inducing liquor. The land erupts with fruits, making for delicious juices like maracuyá (passion fruit), tomate de árbol (tree tomato), and uchuva (physalis).

The experience of Ecuador’s melting pot begins in the capital. Declared as UNESCO’s first World Heritage site, Quito’s historic old town, with its baroque churches and palaces, is becoming Latin America’s leading urban getaway. Beyond the architectural beauty, you’ll find that Spanish and even pre-colonial influences still inform the street music, bustling plazas, and local cuisine. Up in the misty mountains, denizens of deep-rooted communities will travel miles with their goods to Andean towns. Market squares then display a kaleidoscope of colors, with handwoven garments and odd-shaped fruit, and the aromas of roasting meat and sounds of trade swirl along the streets.

La Mama Negra commemorates the Virgin of Mercy’s saving of Latacunga from a volcanic eruption in 1742. In September, and again during the first week of November, the streets of this small town throb with the sounds of drums, trumpets, and trombones from various parades (though the sight of a black-faced virgin and colorful transvestites may live longer in the memory). As the important Catholic festival before Easter, Carnival prepares devout believers for 40 days of fasting—with an almighty blowout. If you’re walking outside, expect to be covered in eggs, soap, and foam. The best way to enjoy the event is to grab a can and join in. At the beginning of December, Quito explodes into the weeklong Fiestas de Quito, celebrating the founding of the city in 1534. Open-air stages sprout up around the old town, featuring parades, street dances, and bullfights (without killings).

Ecuador's population of some 16 million is 71 percent mestizo, and the official language is Spanish. Although many of the country’s 27 indigenous groups—speaking at least 15 languages, most derived from Kichwa—do take part in community tourism initiatives, Ecuadorians as a whole remain committed to maintaining their unique customs and lifestyle. Ecuador moved to the U.S. dollar in 2000, stabilizing the economy after dangerous levels of inflation. In 2008, Ecuador was the first country in the world to uphold the “Rights of Nature” in its constitution, aiming to protect the country’s rich biodiversity. The majority of its environmental wonderlands lie in 51 protected areas, making up 19 percent of the land, including national parks and the Galápagos Islands.

 

Simon is a travel writer and freelance journalist flirting with both South America and Europe. He has contributed to the Washington Post, Independent, Yorkshire Post, Colombia Reports and Argentina Independent, among other publications. Simon is a sports nut, and when he is not adventure-seeking he is following his beloved Barnsley Football Club.