This South American country is like four places in one. You get the Pacific coast, the Andes Mountains with its active volcanoes, the Amazon rain forest packed with wildlife and the iconic Galapagos Islands, all in one package.
With these four distinct eco-systems, Ecuador is more than just a jumping-off point for the Galapagos. Exploring the interior delivers Andes mountain magic and Amazon jungle surprises.
Explore the capital. Quito is a series of mini-neighbourhoods, each with a different essence and identity. Old Town brims with historic buildings, churches and museums. La Marsical comes alive at five, with young locals and tourists spilling out of the bars and restaurants near Plaza Foch. Head over to Calle de la Ronda for an authentic Ecuadorian snack and a happy-hour two-for-one. Cabs cost next to nothing, so you can skip the too-busy bus.
Head for the hills. A trip up the winding highways to the highlands nets you volcanic vistas, indigenous realism and misty forest. The city of Otavalo, in a lake region known for its textiles, has the largest outdoor market in South America, with row after row of stalls selling crafts and souvenirs. Spend a night at 200-year-old Hacienda Pinsaqui nearby, and enjoy a canelazo in the legendary bar—a spiked cinnamon tea.
Get sporty. Adventure sports are hot in Baños in south-central Ecuador, a relaxing spa town best known for paragliding, canyoneering and zip lining, as well as its picturesque parks, hilltop hikes and calming waters. Spring for a massage at one of the spas or pop into the local mineral baths for $2, and do the hot-and-cold healing-water circuit.
Hit the rainforest. Journey into the jungle for a night or three at one of the remote lodges in and around Yasuni National Park, accessible only by motorized canoe. You get the full rainforest effect communing with monkeys, fishing for piranha, scanning the treetops for rare birds, and watching parrots play along the clay riverbanks. Local community visits yield eye-opening simplicity.
Eat local. Traditional Ecuadorian food is plentiful, reasonably priced and delicious, particularly the barbecue. Fresh fish, fried chicken and churrasco beef dishes are dolled up with a variety of home-style hot sauces, patatas fritas, flavoured rice or deep-fried plantain. Steer clear of the street food, as your stomach may not react as positively as your eyes, but do step outside the taste-bud box and experience some of the authentic delicacies.
When you go. You can visit Ecuador all year round. January to May are the warmest months, but also the wettest. From June to December tends to be cooler and crowds are rare. GAdventures offers a nine-day Ecuador tour as part of its National Geographic Journeys adventure series.