With a total of twelve countries spread across the continent, spanning from the tropical Caribbean Sea to the rough ocean at the southernmost ‘end of the world’, loads of mountains, forests and deserts in-between, South America is an incredibly diverse place to visit, and choosing where to begin is hard. One of the continent’s smallest and way too often overseen countries is Ecuador, which is cut in half – you guessed it right – by the equator and stretches from the Amazon rainforest across the Andes all the way to the Pacific coast. Lonely Planet just recently named Ecuador’s capital, Quito, as #2 of its best cities to travel to in 2016. Lucky for you we have already been there, and thanks to Quito Turismo and Metropolitan Touring collected unforgettable memories and a list of these ten essential experiences you need to add to your Ecuador itinerary.

10 Essential Experiences in Ecuador, Kathi Kamleitner, Travelettes

1) Explore Quito

World famous for its UNESCO-protected Old Town, the capital of Ecuador is a city with many faces. The Old Town is indeed one of the highlights, especially when it comes to gorgeous architecture, traditional artisan crafts, people watching and breathtaking views. My favourite spots here were the rooftop terrace of the Gonzalez Suarez Library (totally free to access) and the small artisan shops in La Ronda (a tin maker, a hat maker, a chocolate shop! etc.).

10 Essential Experiences in Ecuador - QUITO Old Town, Kathi Kamleitner, Travelettes 10 Essential Experiences in Ecuador - QUITO La Ronda, Kathi Kamleitner, Travelettes

But Quito is a lot more than its UNESCO World Heritage site… Stretching across a narrow valley for over 40km there certainly is a neighbourhood for everything! If you are into nightlife, cool restaurants and authentic souvenir shopping, definitely head into Mariscal and La Floresta. Go for dinner at El Pobre Diablo and definitely try the traditional Canelazo cocktail (loads of cinnamon) as aperitif. The market Mercado Artesanal is great for some last minute souvenir shopping. And at La Liebre Video Cafe you get great coffee and food, but also free WiFi to catch up with friends and family.

 

2) Otavalo Market

Roughly 7% of Ecuador’s population are of Amerindian ethnicity, meaning that they are Native Ecuadorians. There are many different groups among them, but most of them speak the common language Qhichua. Probably the best-known group are the Otavaleños – or have you never heard of the colourful Otavalo Market before?

Otavalo is a small town about 2 hours north of Quito (by car). In the centre there is a large market where indigenous people of the region come to sell their produce and their crafts. The crowd of market goers is a healthy mix of locals and tourists, although there are of course different clusters here and there. Locals are here to shop for cheap clothes and food, while tourists are attracted by leather backpacks, woven textiles in all colours and shapes, alpaca hides and embroidered blouses to bring home.

10 Essential Experiences in Ecuador - Otavalo Market, Kathi Kamleitner, Travelettes

If you are into street food and not too squeamish about animals’ body parts make sure not to miss the food market behind the actual market. Every alley seems to be dedicated to a certain kind of meat and there are stalls selling fruit, veg and grains. The best thing? Hardly any tourists come all the way here, so you’re in for a truly local treat!

 

3)Foodie Travel

Although even many Ecuadorians I met said, that the number one foodie country of South America is Peru, the food and drinks of Ecuador are worth some thorough exploring. It might be meat-heavy, but there are plenty of tropical fruit and vegetables to stuff your face in between meals! Here are some of my favourite delicacies first encountered in Ecuador – and some specialities you might want to consider trying:

Ceviche: a traditional sea food soup, served in many many different styles all across South and Central America – to learn one Ecuadorian way of ceviche preparation, head to Hotel Plaza Grande in Quito for a DIY lunch with one of the hotel’s chefs.

Cuy: the famous roasted guinea pig on a stick – traditionally eaten by locals on Sundays, and even then only occasionally, is rather expensive. Unfortunately I can’t tell you what it tastes like, as the live guinea pigs in the cages next to the food stall were too convincingly adorable after all…

Llapingachos: pancakes filled with mashed potatoes and cheese – particularly yummy served with fried eggs at El Pobre Diablo in Quito!

Exotic fruit like granadilla (my heart stopped beating for a moment – so good), narajilla (similar experience) or tree-tomato (not my thing, but worth a try).

10 Essential Experiences in Ecuador - Foodie Travel Food and Drinks, Kathi Kamleitner, Travelettes

Sweets which are sold on every corner in Quito’s Old Town – especially the sweet nuts from Colaziones Cruz Verde, where Luis Marcelo Banda has been slowly roasting and sugarcoating peanuts for decades. He makes one batch per day, which takes up to four hours!

Django beer: a very dark stout, brewed in Quito – completely unexpected, but I guess the hype of craft beer has reached Ecuador!

Canelazo: a local rum cocktail mixed with hot orange juice and loads of cinnamon (served warm). Bring a bottle of Aguardiente (the local rum) home as a souvenir and have a nostalgic cocktail party at home – a bottle costs only $10 at the airport!

Coffee, particularly the almond roast of the brand Velez, and Chocolate by Chez Tiff, Pacari or Republica del Cacao – the perfect souvenirs for anyone!

 

4) Cruising the Galapagos

The Galapagos Islands are an absolute dream destination – unique landscapes, incredibly wildlife watching,very exclusive due to strict national park regulations and 100% worth the expense. I joined a 5 day cruise with Metropolitan Touring aboard the, now retired, M/V Santa Cruz (the new Santa Cruz II is even better) and was blown away by how much you can see and experience in such short time.

10 Essential Experiences in Ecuador - Galapagos Cruise Metropolitan Tourisn Santa Cruz, Kathi Kamleitner, Travelettes

I met amazing people from around the world, who are interested in sustainable tourism and in getting up close with nature. This is a trip for active Travelettes, and a cruise proved to be perfect as a solo traveler as you spend a lot of time with the other passengers. I swam with curios seals and chilled with them at the beach; I got face to face with colourful boobies (birds, BIRDS!); snorkelled above more than one massive manta ray; learnt more about our precious planet and made friends for life. In fact, the Galapagos Cruise will deserve an article for itself!

 

5) Sleep at a traditional countryside Hacienda

This is quite easily done, because traditional haciendas are everywhere on the Ecuadorian countryside. The estates used to be connected with agriculture, plantations or workshops, and unfortunately with slave trade and breaches of human rights – but nowadays most are converted into hotels and/or restaurants.

10 Essential Experiences in Ecuador - Traditional Hacienda, Kathi Kamleitner, Travelettes

If you do a road trip through the Andes, you will eventually end up stopping here for lunch or a good night’s rest. If you are interested in one of the country’s most important economies of today stop at Compañia Hacienda on your way to Otovalo – it belongs to one of the biggest rose farms in Ecuador, and in the show room you can sniff all kinds of roses (bottom row: first and third picture). Another one of my favourites was Cusin Hacienda, also close to Otavalo, where I spend a night – next to my gorgeous bed there was a fireplace which was lit up while I sat at dinner, so I came back to a cozy warm room (with an extra hot water bottle under the covers). Staying at an hacienda is a great way of getting an idea of countryside life in the mountains, and exposes you to some of the most beautiful houses in the country!

 

6) Test the laws of physics (and take almost perfect tourist photos)

Please excuse my only half-decent tourist shot below, but when at the equator, it’s like when in Rome – who cares? Ecuador has its name from the fact that the equator runs right through the country. Close to Quito there are two monuments – the massive one with the ball on top (the one in my hand) is the historical Mitad del Mundo (middle of the World) built around 1980. It stands on what used to mark the exact position of the equator, but was later found to be in-exact. The actual middle of the World lies 200m away and you can visit it by entering the Itañan Solar Museum.

10 Essential Experiences in Ecuador - Mitad del Mundo, Equator, Middle of the World, Kathi Kamleitner, Travelettes

You get a guide to walk you around, show you the different anthropological exhibits on the grounds, talk you through some Native Ecuadorian history, and then finally taking you to the equator to do a couple of experiments. You get to balance an egg on the head of a nail, walk a line with your eyes closed and watch water changing its draining direction north and south of the line – it’s a quick, fun tour and you get a certificate if you manage to balance the egg. Needless to say, I now have a piece of paper confirming that I succeeded.

 

7) Take a Train

In a country that is so rich and diverse in dramatic landscapes, taking the time to travel by train through the middle of no-where is a no-brainer. The most famous rail line might be the recently restored Tren Crucero, the Devil’s Train, which takes 4 days to go from Quito high up in the Andes down to Guayaquil by the coast. The name comes from the steep tracks and exhilarating switchbacks that allow the train to ascend/descend 2,945 meters in just 56 kilometers – imagine four days for 56km… Unfortunately the train had to be re-routed due to the recent eruptions of Cotopaxi volcano and as no-one can really predict what will happen to the volcano, this change is indefinite.

10 Essential Experiences in Ecuador - Train Ride, Tren de Libertad, Otavalo Iberra, Salinas, Kathi Kamleitner, Travelettes

Instead of following this route for a day, I had to change my plans and boarded one of the country’s many other trains. I went with Tren de Liberated from Ibarra to Salinas, in a region with significant Brazilian and African influences. Throughout the trip, the train crossed a couple of ancient-looking bridges and entered pitch-black tunnels through the mountains which gave way to breathtaking views over the valleys. I loved seeing the country from this completely different side.

 

8) Immerse yourself in the Forests

My time in the Amazon rainforest, which I visited in Brazil in 2013, is one of my fondest memories ever, and I was quite excited to return to its opposite side in Ecuador. The best way to reach the Amazon from Quito is probably by bus or small plane, and then stay in a small community rainforest lodge surrounded by nothing but lush green and monkeys.

10 Essential Experiences in Ecuador - Mashpi Lodge, Cloud Forest, Rain Forest, Sky Bike, Kathi Kamleitner, Travelettes

Unfortunately I didn’t manage to go myself this time around, but I found a place, which I now love just as much: the Mashpi Cloud Forest. The only difference between rain and cloud forests is, the altitude they are on – the lush green vegetation, the biodiversity and humidity are more or less the same. Mashpi is like a little paradise, and so is Mashpi Lodge, which is an eco-friendly lodge in the middle of the forest. Long before I knew about my trip to Ecuador, I had been oogling its website, as one of those once-in-a-lifetime places to put on my bucket list. I could barely believe that I had the opportunity to actually go there.

10 Essential Experiences in Ecuador - Mashpi Lodge, Cloud Forest, Rain Forest, Butterflies, Kathi Kamleitner, Travelettes

Staying at Mashpi Lodge is quite a big expense, but absolutely worth every last penny! All excursions in company of very well-trained naturalists and local nature guides are included in the price – you visit the hummingbird station (over 30 different species of humming birds have been counted here so far) and the butterfly garden and hatching station (oh so beautiful); there are several waterfalls in the area, some very easy to reach, others a sweaty one-hour-trek from the lodge; the highlight is the lodge’s Sky Bike, which is a ‘bicycle zipline’ through the forest, which brought us into the canopy and beyond – I had never experienced anything more beautiful in the forests! More about this magical place later on…

 

9) Get close up to a Volcano

As long as it’s not Cotopaxi volcano, you should be fairly safe to pick almost any volcano in Ecuador and peek inside – there are over 20 to choose from (active, sleeping and extinct), many of which in very close proximity to or smack-bang in the middle of Quito. Scary or convenient? – you decide for yourself…

10 Essential Experiences in Ecuador - Volcanoes, Cuicocha Lagoon, Cayambe, Kathi Kamleitner, Travelettes

The volcanoes are basically everywhere you look. Whether it’s the two Pichincha volcanos west of Quito (take the cable car up for a great view), Cayambe, which you pass on your way to Otavalo, or Imbabura, high above the same town. Two of my favourite crater experiences were Pululahua Crater, which is extremely fertile, hence inhabited and farmed by about 60 locals, and Cuicocha Lagoon, a deep blue crater lake at the foot of Cotacachi volcano.

 

10) An evening at Papallacta Hot Springs

No trip would be complete, without pampering yourself a little bit at the end. Said and done: my new friends, who I met at the Galapagos cruise, and I were off to the Papallacta Hot Springs, which is just a few hours drive away from Ecuador. There is a hotel and a spa out there, but both are quite pricey. The more wallet-friendly option are the hot springs right next to the spa – only $8 to get in for as long as you want! (Be aware that you will need your passport info and ID when buying a ticket – don’t ask me why… We decided to go in the evening, so that it would be nice and cold outside and the effects of the hot water even stronger. We figured the perfect time to arrive at the hot springs is between 4 and 5pm, so you get to wander around in daylight at first, make yourself familiar with all the different pools. Some are hot, some cold, some have waterfalls and others relaxing benches – make sure to see them all. Sun sets around 6pm year-round in Ecuador, so don’t worry about having to drive back super late – you can easily soak in the pools for a couple of hours, and still be back in your hotel in good time before midnight.

10 Essential Experiences in Ecuador - Papallacta Hot Springs, Spa, Hotel, Kathi Kamleitner, Travelettes

I travelled Ecuador for only two weeks, and even though it is such a small country, it seems that that was hardly enough to even just scratch the top layer of all the things you can do and see here. I have yet to return to the Amazon, and hike a mountain or volcano – not to speak of the Pacific coastline, which I had not seen at all! Until the next time, Ecuador!

Have you been to Ecuador yourself. What were some of your highlights – let me know in the comments, I need to make a list for next time!

All photos by Kathi Kamleitner, except of Papallacta Hot Springs (source).