By Jackie Laughlin
Ecuador: Home of the bucket-list-worthy Galapagos islands, a volcanic archipelago visited by nearly 200,000 tourists per year, where Charles Darwin famously collected his data to form his theory of evolution.
That’s Ecuador, right?
Not exactly. The Galapagos only makes up one quarter of what Ecuador refers to as its “Four Worlds.” Let’s try that again.
Ecuador: Home of the bucket-list-worthy Galapagos islands, the culture-laden jungle of the Amazon rain forest, the snow-capped peaks of the Andean volcanoes, and the lush, green, seafood-rich Pacific coast.
There is so much more to Ecuador than the beautiful Galapagos islands, and on a recent rip, I discovered surprise after surprise about what this incredibly diverse country has to offer.
The Ecuadorian highlands are not just classified by elevation. They are actually part of an ecosystem called the páramo, which only occurs in specific countries in Central and South America. One of the characteristics is very high water retention in the soil due to tropical climate. We spent an afternoon hiking through the páramo and ended up at beautiful Papallacta hot springs, the perfect reward for a long hike through the area’s dense, muddy trails.
The Amazon Rain Forest
Obvious? I don’t think so. I doubt many people imagine Ecuador when they think “Amazon.” Yet, in a matter of just a few hours, we drove from the páramo in the Andes to the Amazon basin to go white-water rafting and stay at a jungle lodge. The Amazon region of Ecuador is vast and beautiful, full of greenery, indigenous tribes, and the best part: lodges, boats, and local guides to accommodate tourism in the thick of it.
The Quechua Culture
Of the roughly 15 million people that live in Ecuador, 2.5 million are of Quechua origin. Not only did we meet several of these folks on our trek, but we learned words in the Quechua dialects everywhere we went (Ali chishi! Good afternoon!). The jungle lodge we stayed at was just up river from a Quechua village that invites tourists to its island. When we visited, they demonstrated how to make chicha, the traditional yucca-based drink, and let us all shoot darts from a blowgun. Even though I realize this was partly just a show for the tourists, what’s not to love about shooting darts from a blowgun?
The Rose Industry
Did you know that Ecuador is one of the world’s largest exporters of roses? On a tour of the Sacha Rose plantation near Pifo, we learned that the climate around the equator and high elevation is ideal for growing some of the tallest and biggest roses in the world.
The Craft Beer Scene
I love craft beer. One of the most disappointing things about traveling is the light beer that plagues countries across the globe, and the serious lack of craft brews. Not so with Ecuador. The craft beer scene is exploding in this small country. Competition is high and the brews are worthy. I had one of the most enjoyable Black IPAs I’ve ever tasted in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
The Avenue of the Volcanoes
There are 30 volcanoes on mainland Ecuador alone. This includes Cotopaxi, the world’s highest active volcano, which has been spewing steam and ash even this week. Eight of Ecuador’s ten highest peaks are in an area known as the Avenue of the Volcanoes. With elevations reaching over 20,000 feet, this section of the Andes is quite spectacular, not to mention it’s a hiker’s and climber’s paradise. We spent a couple of days hiking and horseback riding in the Cotopaxi páramo at the base of Rumiñahui, and we could see volcanoes in every direction.
The Locals Are Embracing Tourism
No matter where we went, we were received warmly by Ecuadorian locals. Tourism has proven its value as a leading industry in other Central American countries (i.e. Costa Rica), and Ecuador seems to understand that and is catering to tourism in a very progressive way. This was especially apparent after meeting the Minister of Tourism, Miss Sandra Naranjo, who is the same age as I am and already accomplishing great things for her country.
This is possibly the single-most popular characteristic of Ecuador, but even though I knew that the country is one of the most biodiverse on the planet, it still managed to surprise me. We spent plenty of time bird watching and hiking through jungles, where we found all sorts of critters both by day and night, but the sheer number of different species that we saw was astounding. Darwin was on to something: It truly is a place of impressive biodiversity and an absolute must for nature lovers.
Although there are many cities in Ecuador worthy of a visit, one in particular stands out. Located in the southern part of the country, Cuenca has been called the “most European” of South American cities based on its historic Spanish and French architecture and large number of foreigners living there. The city boasts a vibrant arts and cafe scene that reminds me of Spain and southern France.
The Absence of the Galapagos
The what? Oh right, the Galapagos. On my ten-day trek through Ecuador, the Galapagos were not more than a passing thought. The distant, magical islands are still on my bucket list, but I did not miss them this time. The endless activities and whole experience that you can have exploring the diversity of mainland Ecuador is more than enough to satisfy an adventurer’s cravings, without having to cross an ocean.