Travel

Sun, Sea and Iguanas – welcome to the green room

September 23, 2014

Located on the equatorial line in the northwest of South America, Ecuador encompasses nature’s most elaborate canvases. The swirling waves of the Pacific Ocean sculpt life into the western shoreline, whilst on the eastern side, splashes of colourful fauna embellish the avocado-shaded flora of the Amazon.

Located on the equatorial line in the northwest of South America, Ecuador encompasses nature’s most elaborate canvases. The swirling waves of the Pacific Ocean sculpt life into the western shoreline, whilst on the eastern side, splashes of colourful fauna embellish the avocado-shaded flora of the Amazon. Slicing through both of these are the abstract looking Andean ranges, dominant and imposing in character. If all the world’s natural riches were to be found in one country, then picture-perfect Ecuador surely tops the list.

Bordering Chile to the south and Colombia to the north, Ecuador is a country blessed with a diversity many of its neighbours would covet. With a historic cultural centre in Quito, the capital is the best place to start your Ecuadorian adventure. Quito boasts the largest and best-restored historic centre in the Americas. It’s a treasure trove of churches, squares, cobbled streets, markets and a million-and-one small shops; the ideal city to explore on foot and make new discoveries. Of all the Latin American countries, Ecuador has the smallest Muslim population, and the concentration of the several thousand or so centre around the Centro Islamico del Ecuador in the leafy suburbs of Quito. The Islamic centre in Guayaquil is also convenient for those flying to Baltra, the gateway to the Ecuador’s most popular attraction.

Although most of South America boasts dramatic landscapes and many share the Amazon, Ecuador has a trick up its sleeve ; The Galápagos Islands. The collection of islands are the home to much of Charles Darwins’ research, and you don’t have to agree with his theory to appreciate the natural beauty that has been created on this earth. The Galápagos is one of the best examples of wildlife living in its natural environment and many of the archipelago’s animals, such as the marine iguana, are found nowhere else on the planet.

The Galápagos archipelago is larger than most people imagine. Its marine reserve extends over 138,000 square kilometres and the best way to experience the islands is on board one of the cruises. Unlike a conventional cruise, you are taken on a journey of conservation and education of the richness of the Galápagos. Setting sail on board the La Pinta Yacht from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristóbal Island, you can sail hundreds of miles before returning to port a week later. The yachts follow a set route, determined by the national park authority which is strictly monitored to maintain the conservation effort. They sail between the islands, stopping at a dozen or so of the sixty designated visitor sites. In the morning, you could be climbing the crest of a hill on Bartolomé Island, with its craggy lunarscape surface tumbling down to a sandy beach below, and later that day you could be on Rábida Island with its deep red beach and hills covered in ghostly-grey palo santo trees.

TEspañola, the southernmost island, is one of highlights, where a small dinghy ferries you to the visitor site of Punta Suárez, a long, low headland of twisted volcanic rock. Laden with cameras, binoculars and large sun hats, bare-footed bipeds are helped off the panga for a “wet landing” onto the black lava rock. The strange combination of volcanic ground and stunning flora and fauna makes a for mind-boggling combination. Prehistoric giant saddleback tortoise and sea lions bask in the sunshine, hanging out in the alfresco green room for marine wildlife. The show stealer is most certainly the waved albatross, a creature famous for its elegant flight, elaborate courtship display and its size — it’s the largest bird of the archipelago, and is only found on Española and an island off the Ecuadorian mainland. For some reason, the inhabitants of the Galapogas are almost completely fearless of human interaction. The marine iguanas make their sloth-like way across the front of the Finch Bay Hotel without a care in the world towards their camera-happy observers while Finches have been known to literally eat out of the palm of visitor’s hands, which is amazing considering the little interaction the wildlife have had with humans over time.

Although the Galápagos are one of the main reasons to visit Ecuador, there is much more to explore on dry land. Cuenca’s, the third largest city, with its narrow cobblestoned alleyways, impressive colonial architecture and compelling sights, is one of Ecuador’s many UNESCO heritage towns. Although steeped in history, the city manages to maintain a modern feel with hip cafés and funky restaurants in the mild Andean climate. Cuenca is also the perfect base to explore more of the southern Andean region including the towns of Loja and Vilcabamba, and the Giron waterfalls. For some historical insight, the Ingapirca firmly stands as Ecuador’s most impressive and significant site of Inca ruins. Located about 90km north of Cuenca, the complex network of stone structures at Ingapirca displays both the Inca and Canari cultures’ mastery of stonework and their keen awareness of solar patterns. Set in an agricultural zone with a rich indigenous history, Ingapirca also shows the fertility of the soil and the unique interaction between the warring Inca and Canari people during the pre-Spanish 15th century.

The Ecuador Amazon rainforest region, or “El Oriente” to Ecuadorians, is the largest region in Ecuador, with more than nine reserves and national parks. It is by far the most bio-diverse area in Ecuador, with more than 800 species of birds, over 2500 species of insects and in excess of 450 widespread flora. The Ecuadorian Amazon region is home to hundreds of indigenous communities, forming more than 250 nations, including Siona, Secoya, Cofan, Shuar, Zaparo, Huaorani and Quichua. Travellers can visit the different Amazon lodges that they manage, which are a source of sustainable income for their communities, with health and education facilities.

A new destination for experiencing natural beauty, biodiversity and eco-adventure opened recently in the Ecuadorian Andes. Mashpi Lodge, an innovative retreat located just three hours west of Quito, is set in a 3,200-acre reserve protecting a small slice of the Chocó biodiversity hotspot. The sophisticated and intimate Lodge has been designed as the ideal springboard for exploring the reserve. Located behind a private getaway, only accessible to its guests and located on a high plateau, Mashpi Lodge offers breathtaking views of the forest and valleys at nearly every angle.

The Lodge is built with the latest technologies in sustainable building and employs hydroelectric power so is designed to blend beautifully with its surroundings. It features strikingly contemporary, minimalist décor and floor to ceiling windows and is a cozy cocoon amid the forest with the natural world just beyond. A novel system which will be launched in September, known as the canopy gondola (or aerial tram) and will glide through the upper canopy, taking groups of up to six guests with their resident naturalist on a trip of two kilometers to witness the exciting world of rainforest life, high above the forest floor.

If you love wildlife and just can’t get enough of exploring new vistas, then Ecuador is simply awe-inspiring. The array of nature’s most prized possessions line up in your own outdoor gallery, happily pose for the cameras and are unaware of the spectacle they create. Together with the warm, welcoming locals, unique cuisine and of course superb cacao, Ecuador is truly a once in a lifetime experience.

Getting there

The best way to get to Ecuador is via Amsterdam with KLM or Madrid with Iberia. The flight time can take between 18 and 22 hours in total. Ecuador can easily be combined with Argentina, Chile or Brazil for a complete South American experience.

Best time to go

The Coast has a tropical climate, and is hot and humid. The Coast is cloudy, cooler and dry from May to December, and hotter and rainier from January to April. Due to the altitude, the Andes region has cool, spring-like weather, with a great deal of sunshine. Temperatures vary throughout the day. The highlands are overcast and wet during the rainy season (October-May), and drier, with mild showers, common in the afternoon, during the dry season (June-September).

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