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Why Ecuador Is a Great Destination for First-Time Visitors to South America

6 min read
Published on Sep 27, 2023
Aren Bergstrom
By Aren BergstromManaging Editor, Globetrotting Magazine

Ecuador rarely gets the acclaim it deserves. It’s time to change that. This is a nation with a rich history, a welcoming culture, and an astounding natural variety. It’s also a great place to visit if you’re heading to South America for the first time.

Located smack dab on the Equator in South America, Ecuador is a nation bursting with diverse landscapes and some of the world’s most fascinating natural wonders. Off the shores in the Pacific Ocean lie the Galapagos Islands, its biodiverse archipelago that is home to some of the most unique animals in the world. But the mainland is equally marvelous, shifting from Andean highlands to Amazonian rainforest to coastal towns that offer a huge amount of variety within their borders. If you’ve never been to South America before, consider starting with a trip to Ecuador. It’s got so much wonder in one destination.

Tailor-made trips to Ecuador

Why is Ecuador a great destination for first-time visitors to South America?

Ecuador has several distinct geographic landscapes within its borders.

Cotopaxi Volcano is the tallest active volcano in the world.

If you want to experience the variety of South America, you can enjoy a taste of it within Ecuador’s borders. Ecuador is blessed with a remarkable diversity of landscapes, which feeds the uniqueness of its culture.

On the mainland, the Andes Mountains run north to south through the country in what is known as La Sierra. Along this mountain range, you’ll find the capital, Quito, as well as market towns such as Otavalo. It’s also home to Chimborazo, the tallest mountain in the nation at 20,548 ft / 6,263 m, and Cotopaxi Volcano, the tallest active volcano in the world at 19,347 ft / 5,897 m. Cotopaxi is so unique that you can see smoke breaking through the glacier layer that caps the mountain. The highlands are made for hiking as well as train travel, such as the Devil’s Nose train, which connects from Alausi to Silambe on a steam engine that rapidly shifts elevations through an ingenious switchback rail system. It’s one of the most unique rail journeys in the world.

Beyond the Andes mountains, Ecuador also has the Pacific coastal plain or La Costa, where you’ll find the commercial capital Guayaquil as well as beautiful coastal villages and towns that take advantage of the warm waters of the Pacific. And in the east lies the Amazon rainforest. Head to Yasuni National Park and nearby spots to explore the Amazon River and spot black caimans, giant otters, and perhaps even the rare pink river dolphin.

Ecuador is home to the Galapagos Islands, the most unique island chain in the world.

Galapagos Tortoises are the most iconic of the many endemic animals species of the island chain.

The fourth of Ecuador’s distinct geographic regions lies about 560 mi / 900 km off the coast in the Pacific Ocean: the Galapagos Islands. This is the most unique island chain in the world, a collection of islands with their own distinct microclimates and evolutionary patterns. Charles Darwin famously visited the islands in the 1830s, using his observations in the islands to formulate the Theory of Evolution.

A trip to the Galapagos is a journey through one of the world’s great wildlife wonderlands. Visit islands such as Santa Cruz, Isabela, Fernandina, and Santiago to spot rare land and marine iguana hybrids, flightless cormorants, red-throated frigatebirds, blue-footed boobies, and Galapagos penguins. Oh, and of course, the giant tortoises that can live over 200 years and give the islands their name. The exotic wildlife is the main attraction, but the natural landscape is breathtakingly unique in its own right. Hike over volcanic beaches, snorkel through underwater calderas, venture through mangrove forests, and see some of the strangest natural sights in the world, including the green beach of Floreana.

Ecuador’s capital, Quito, has the best-preserved old town in South America.

Quito's Old Town is UNESCO-listed and the best-preserved old town in South America.

Quito is the capital of Ecuador and used to be the northern capital of the Inca Empire. Its old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site of red-roofed Spanish colonial buildings constructed on Inca foundations. Set along the hillside, the historic quarter is arguably the best-preserved old town on the continent. Quito is a great place to explore for a few days. Visit historical landmarks such as the opera house of Teatro Sucre and ride the Teleferico gondola up to Cruz Loma lookout on Pichincha Volcano. The ride takes around 20 minutes and offers exceptional views from 12,943 ft / 3,945 m above the city.

Ecuador has a unique culture with Spanish and Indigenous roots.

Ingapirca are the largest Inca ruins in Ecuador.

As befits a nation with such distinct geographic environments, Ecuador has a diverse ethnic and cultural background. The majority of the nation is Mestizo, a mix of European and Indigenous ethnicities. Today, Spanish and Quechua cultural influences define the nation. Head to the famous market town of Otavalo in the highlands to experience a burst of Indigenous craftsmanship. Otavalo is arguably the most famous Indigenous market town on the continent, and it’s a great place to shop for textiles, clothes, jewelry and other handicrafts that keep alive the nation’s Indigenous traditions. Further south, the city of Cuenca offers a taste of Europe in South America, with gorgeous Spanish colonial architecture dating back to the 16th century. The entire city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ecuador is also the site of key Inca ruins, the largest and most significant of which is Ingapirca. Part of the settlement was used as a military fortification by the Inca, but Ingapirca is chiefly known as the site of a Qorikancha or sun temple, which was key to Incan religious practices.

Ecuador is affordable and easy to get to.

Quito has some incredible views. (Credit: Ecuador Tourism)

Ecuador is a comfortable destination for American and Canadian travellers. The mainland is affordable, much more so than its South American neighbours, meaning that the US and Canadian dollar stretches far when purchasing food and drink, accommodations, and tour services. Furthermore, the nation shares a timezone with the US and Canada, so travellers don’t have to worry about jet lag when visiting.

As well, it’s easy to get to Ecuador. There are non-stop flights from New York, Atlanta, Houston, and Miami, as well as easy connections with one or two stops from other major cities across the US and Canada, including Los Angeles, Toronto, and Montreal. If you’ve been dreaming about exploring South America, there’s no reason to delay. Book a trip to Ecuador and enjoy a taste of the South American continent in microcosm.

Related Topics
South America
Aren Bergstrom
Aren Bergstrom
Goway - Managing Editor, Globetrotting Magazine

You might say that Aren was destined to become a globetrotter after his family took him to Germany two times before he was four. If that wasn’t enough, a term spent in Sweden as a young teenager and a trek across Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand confirmed that destiny. An independent writer, director, and film critic, Aren has travelled across Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and South America. His favourite travel experience was visiting the major cities of Japan’s largest island, Honshu, but his love for food, drink, and film will take him anywhere that boasts great art and culture.

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