By Alicia Chang Guayaquil
No offense against the Galapagos Islands. Home to giant tortoises, blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas and other exotic creatures, the archipelago off Ecuador’s coast ranks for me and many other travelers among the top places to visit before I die.
Yet with only two weeks to spend in Ecuador, we drew up an itinerary that bypassed the famous islands in favor of a whirlwind mainland trek that would take my husband and me from the mountains to the rain forest to the southern highlands and finally, the Pacific coast.
Ecuador may be one of the smallest South American countries, but its outsized natural and cultural wonders are unparalleled.
We ended up with an itinerary that took us to five very different places: Quito, the capital; a jungle lodge; the colonial city of Cuenca; the surf town of Montanita; and the country’s largest city, Guayaquil.
We planned and booked our trip using guidebooks, Internet reviews and word-of-mouth from friends who once lived there.
Sometimes we winged it, showing up at a hotel without a reservation, and we used a variety of transportation — planes, boats and buses — to travel from region to region. Our only requirement was that we experience the different Ecuadorean climes to sample the country’s diversity.
Our journey began in Quito, ringed by dramatic volcanic peaks and boasting a revitalized Old Town, a historic center of lively plazas, soaring churches and colonial architecture where we spent most of our time.
Several mornings, we sat on a bench in the Plaza Grande, the main square, and watched couples strolling hand-in-hand, men in business suits breezing by, indigenous women selling their wares and shoeshine boys looking to make a few quarters.
We stood in line for an hour to tour the Palacio del Gobierno, the Presidential Palace, flanked by two toy soldier-style guards in ornate gold and blue. We got a peek at the grandiose dining hall, the room where the president sits with his cabinet ministers and a space filled with portraits of past Ecuadorean presidents.
For a bird-eye’s view of the city, we hopped on the Teleferiqo, a gondola ride that takes passengers up the flanks of Pichincha volcano. Once at the top some 13,400 feet (4,084 meters) high, we climbed the trail to the volcano, but did not summit because of clouds and mist that obscured the view.
We soon traded the Andes altitude for the Amazon jungle, flying into the oil town of Coca. From there, we boarded a motorized canoe for a 2 1/2-hour trip up the Napo River to the Yachana Lodge, one of several eco-lodges overlooking the Amazon River tributary.
During a night hike and day trek into the rain forest, we encountered monkeys, toucans, bats, lizards and countless insects. We got our wildlife fix, even if it was not the Galapagos kind. After hiking, we visited a medicine man and tested our blowgun skills using a stuffed parrot as a target.
The lodge, with its comfortable rooms and private balcony hammocks, is operated by the nonprofit Yachana Foundation, which also runs a technical high school for indigenous and mestizo students living in the Amazon.
From the rain forest, we flew south to the quaint colonial city of Cuenca known for its cobblestone streets and artsy feel. Our timing was not perfect since our only full day fell on a Sunday, when most museums and stores are closed.
We hit what we could, including the El Sagrario, the old cathedral turned religious museum, and the Museo de Arte Moderno (Modern Art Museum). We spent part of the afternoon ambling the banks of the Tomebamba River and admiring the colonial houses that seemed to hang precariously over it, and passed some time on the steps of the neo-Gothic Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepcion, the newer of two cathedrals in the main plaza.
Time to leave quaintness behind. We barreled west by bus to the sprawling seaport of Guayaquil, a jumping off point to the Galapagos. Instead, we took a three-hour bus ride up the Pacific coast past sleepy fishing villages to the surf town of Montanita.
High season here is December to May, so it was relatively quiet. But the warm water and rideable waves drew swimmers and surfers despite the drizzly weather. We circled back to Guayaquil after a brief beach stay. Ecuador’s largest city has undergone a facelift in the past decade, shedding much of its rough-and-tumble image. Its refurbished waterfront boardwalk, known as the Malecon, is pedestrian-friendly and attracts locals and tourists alike.
North of the Malecon is the bohemian Las Penas, Guayaquil’s oldest neighborhood housing art galleries and restored homes. We climbed the winding staircase of more than 400 steps to the lighthouse, where we were rewarded with stunning city views.
Guayaquil was the last stop in a packed two-week sojourn through Ecuador. Even after visiting five distinct places, there was still a lot left to experience: A spine-tingling bus ride down the Avenue of the Volcanoes; driving the length of the Ruta del Sol, Ecuador’s version of the Pacific Coast Highway; and camping in the national parks. — AP