Quito: Ecuador's capital, Quito, spreads across a valley at the foot of mighty Pichincha Volcano (15,000 ft.). The high valley city measures 32 miles long and five miles wide. The setting is most dramatic. Quito was originally an Inca city re-established in 1534 by a Pizarro lieutenant. Colonial Quito, recently declared a UNESCO Patrimonial Monument, has cobblestone streets, parks, plazas, and elegant colonial architecture. Several of the 86 churches are known for their interiors, including famed La Compania with its ornate, richly sculptured facade and altar. There is a wide range of hotels from no star to five star. Av. Amazonas, the main street, is lined with shops, businesses, and sidewalk cafes. Quito has several good museums. In addition to the basic city tour and shopping, a popular half-day excursion takes visitors to the Equatorial Monument (museum, tower, great photo opportunities). From Quito full-day trips are easy, using surface transportation to the small market towns and villages in the surrounding Andean highlands.
Calderon: Twenty-three miles north of Quito, this village is known for its bread doll shops. These most popular items are literally small hand-painted miniature figures of every imaginable design made from bread dough, baked and glazed. They make spectacular christmas tree ornaments. Stops can be made here en route to or from Otavalo to the north.
Otavalo: Two hours drive north of Quito, through spectacular rolling green hills with backdrops of snow-capped mountains, one reaches several small villages and towns near Otavalo. Here several well-run inns and small hotels make this enjoyable area to overnight. This is a good place not only to visit Ecuador's most colorful Indian market, but also as a base to explore the countryside. In the area one may visit San Antonio de Ibarra, a village dedicated to wood carving, and Cotacachi, one leather shop after another, each offering good quality at rock bottom prices. Most visitors come to Otavalo for the market. Beginning at sunrise every Saturday morning, the affair is three markets in one. One square contains round kioskos where weavers display their rugs, shawls, ponchos, wall hangings and sweaters. On the street to the side and back of the square is a busy produce market, and a third square features a lively animal auction. Many visitors overnight Friday to get to the market early Saturday morning. Weekend hotel space can be tight.
Avenue of the Volcanoes: South of Quito are the "paramos" (high plateaus) and a series of valleys that weave in and out of the famed volcanoes: Cotopaxi (19,347 ft.), Lliniza (17,267 ft.), Chimborazo (20,701 ft.) and Tungurahua (16,456 ft.) to name but a few. The area offers towns with colorful plazas and bargain filled Indian markets. Each town has a different market day: Sunday - Pujili, Salcedo, Machaci, Quinche, and Santo Domingo de los Colorados; Monday - Ambato; Tuesday - Latacunga, Riobamba and Guano; Wednesday - Pujili; Thursday - Saquisili; and Saturday - Latacunga and Riobamba, Most visitors travel from Quito to the markets on full-day excursions with lunch at country haciendas. Another popular option are two day train packages that include an Indian market, local sightseeing and overnight in Riobamba.
Cuenca: Located in the southern Sierra, Cuenca is one of Latin America's most scenically beautiful cities. Rich in cultural traditions, Cuenca was founded in 1557 by the Spanish and is still distinctly colonial with cobblestone streets and centuries-old buildings. Thursday is market day. Throughout the city shops one will see the famous delicately woven straw "Panama hats." When the Panama Canal was being built Cuenca was commissioned to create protective hats for the workers. Soon the name Panama was attached to the Cuenca hweadwear, and it survives today. Near Cuenca stands one of the Inca's northern most surviving ruins - Ingapirca - a mysterious fortress complex that contains what was probably an ancient solar observatory. Other popular excursions from Cuenca include the Paute Valley to Gualaceo with its colorful market and excellent shopping, and on to nearby Chordeleg, a village famous for crafts in wood, silver and gold filigree.
Located in the open Pacific 600 miles west of Ecuador's mainland, the remote volcanic Galapagos Islands provided Charles Darwin with inspiration for his theory of evolution. By air the islands are connected to Quito and Guayaquil by landing strips at Baltra and San Cristobal. The Galapagos National Park's 13 main islands, 42 smaller ones (and numerous unnamed specks of land), feature wildlife that has no fear of man. Visitors walk on marked trails to view an incredible variety of birds, land and marine iguanas, sea lions and the giant Galapagos tortoise. Among the unique species found no where else on earth is the swallow-tailed gull (the only nocturnal feeding gull), and the marine iguana (the only ocean feeding iguana). The waved albatross nests only on Hood Island in the southern archipelago. The giant tortoises are best seen on Santa Cruz Island at the Charles Darwin Research Station. Cruise ships (limited by law to 90 passengers each) offer three, four and seven night itineraries to major visitor sites throughout the islands. The ships of the Galapagos provide comfortable, safe travel between the islands, but should not be confused with luxury cruise ships of the Caribbean. There is also a fleet of smaller yachts and boats providing a variety of itineraries with more intimate facilities. Many charter yachts are also available with accommodations for four to 16 passengers. Itinerary may dictate choice of ship. To avoid disruption of natural flora and fauna the Ecuadorian government regulates traffic onto the islands only by approved vessels. Also, there's a $100 visitor tax one must pay. It sounds high here, but once at the Darwin Station you see how the money the tax generates is being spent to save the fragile enviornment you'll feel better. The Galapagos "garua" or rainy season is from May through November and provides relief from the equatorial sun. December through April is considered the dry season. Clothing is casual. Swimming suits, shorts, jeans, and T-shirts are predominant. Absolute musts are sun protection, a hat, small backpack and canvas shoes or thongs for wet landings. SCUBA and snorkle divers will find some of the Pacific's best and most intriguing diving in the Park's waters and within partially submerged volcanic cones.
Guayaquil: Ecuador's largest city (pop. 3 million), main port, and leading commercial center. Guayaquil sits on the west bank of the Guayas River, 33 miles from its outflow into the Gulf of Guayaquil. There are several excellent, centrally located hotels and many fine restaurants with outstanding seafood. Now one may walk the brand new riverfront "Malecon 2000" running for over a mile beside the Guayas. Walk to the Rotunda for a good lesson in epic South American history. Then climb the Spanish Stairs at Guayaquil's reborn art colony at Las PeÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂ±as, at the foot of Cerro Santa Ana where the city's oldest church, Santo Domingo has survived since 1548. Guayaquil has outstanding new museums with an accent on the region's intriguing archaeology. There are three large shopping centers (Policentro, Unicentro and Alban Borja), and vendors line many downtown streets. For fun, locals will tell you to go to the main plaza to watch the large sleeping iguanas fall out of the trees. Also take the after hours tour aboard the "Chiva" - a rustic bus (with the police band playing atop the roof). It will take you to Guayaquil's liveliest bars and clubs - not for the faint of heart, but can be great fun!
Salinas: Salinas is two hours by paved highway from Guayaquil at the tip of Santa Elena Peninsula. The wide sweeping beach is lined with residential weekend homes, and tall condos and hotels. Deep sea fishing for swordfish and flying fish is world famous from April to November. December-January and April-May are the best months for tuna. June thru October is best for new humpback whale watching excursions.
Isla de la Plata: Well worth a visit while in Guayaquil is a trip north from Salinas to Machalilla National Park, and nearby Isla de la Plata. En route be sure to stop at the small museum at Salango where the unique pre-Columbian seagoing balsa rafts are on display. Nearby, archaeological excavations are underway at Agua Fria. Within Machalillia, there is a beautiful golden crescent beach at Los Frailes. Continue on to Isla de la Plata, where many species of Galapagos birds can be seen.
The largest tributary of the Amazon, the Rio Napo, begins in and flows through Ecuador producing the country's dense Amazonia region. Often referred to as the Oriente (east), this vast tropical area covers 36% of the country's territory, yet has only 3% of the population. While accessible by several roads on arduous, day-long trips, most visitors take convenient short flights to the area. Tourism facilities are limited. Several lodges offer clean, comfortable accommodations, and jungle excursions. The Flotel Orellana, built specifically to carry visitors into the area, which operated three and four night journeys on the remote Rio Iriparicocha has been suspended due to security concerns because of the unrest in neighboring Colombia. For the truly adventurous, private camping expeditions penetrating deep into the jungle can be arranged to Cuyabeno National Reserve, Mishualli on the upper Napo River, La Selva and to the remote area of Puyo. Ecuador's Amazonia is home to over 460 bird species.