Named after the Equator running through it, Ecuador is a geographical and cultural wonder that is truly buzzing with life. Its capital, Quito, is the second-highest city in the world and has been awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status due to its cultural significance. Active volcanoes, hot springs, bridge swinging, waterfall walks and Incan ruins all await tourists and locals in this fascinating country.
With the equator running through its middle, Ecuador is one of the only places where you stand in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. This imaginary line runs straight through Ecuador's capital city and is a tourist attraction you can't miss. Play along with the many 'scientific' that prove you are directly above the Equator.
To celebrate the Equator running through their country, the Ecuadorean government built a 98 feet (30-meter) tower monument in its honor. It sits within the Mitad del Mundo, a park with a thick painted yellow line tracing the Equator along the ground. That, however, is not actually on the Equator. It turns out it was built 787 feet (240 meters) too far to the South, as verified by modern military GPS systems. The site is still an attraction for tourists who don't want to miss the Instagrammable photo-opportunity of standing with their feet on either side of the yellow line.
Ecuador boasts the second-highest capital city in the world, Quito, which sits at an astounding 9,350 feet (2,850 meters) above sea level. The modern meets the ancient in this culturally rich city with 16th-century churches sitting alongside trendy bars and shopping malls. The Quito nightlife scene means you can listen to live Cuban music, dance until the early hours at Club Gia, or even a visit the magnificent Sucre Theatre to see the National Symphonic Orchestra play.
The Telerifico Quito is a gondola system that transports people from Quito to the top of the Pichincha Volcano, an additional 3,510 feet (1070 meters) climb. The transparent walls of the gondolas allow for spectacular panoramic views of Quito and beyond. It's worth noting that the additional climb may induce altitude sickness even for those acclimatized to Quito, so remember to drink plenty of water.
The part of the Amazon Rainforest located in Ecuador contains the very beginnings of the Amazon River and offers jungle visitors the chance to see record-breaking numbers of species in one location, including monkeys, toucans, river dolphins, sloths, and anteaters. Local tour guides provide ways to access the rainforest either by expedition on foot or cruise by boat. If you're not afraid of heights, you can even view the natural wonder from above using various canopy walkways and platforms. Feeling extra adventurous? Bridge swinging over the treetops is available--not for the faint-hearted.
Ecuador's second tallest active volcano last erupted in 2015, spewing ash and heat from its peak. Since then it has followed close monitoring by scientists around the world and has been declared a safe destination for thrill-seekers. Various activities are centered around Cotopaxi including hiking, climbing, horse riding, and mountain biking, all available through local providers.
The 25-mile (40-kilometer) Quilotoa Loop trail takes around three days to complete and travels through valleys, villages, over mountains, and past hostels that provide overnight accommodation for hikers. The main attraction of the Loop is the breathtaking Quilotoa Lake, a 2-mile (3-kilometer) wide crater caused by past volcanic eruptions that is now filled with dazzling turquoise water. If you want to visit the lake and avoid the Loop walk, you can access Quilotoa lake from the nearby village and walk the rim of the crater, a 4.6-mile (7.5-kilometer) trek among wildflowers and maybe even the odd wild llama or two.
Accessible by a short flight from Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands present a unique experience you can't miss. For accommodation, there are hotels on one of the few inhabited islands or live-in boats that sail to the more remote islands, both options are viable and popular. Galapagos National Park officials regulate routes and tours to minimize environmental impact and avoid overcrowding. Indigenous species you can hope to see include tortoises, iguanas, penguins, and sea lions.
This Incan ruins site is a proud display of the craftsmanship and skill of the Incan people. Using no adherent, every stone was perfectly cut to sit alongside the next, creating this massive structure. Its famous Peruvian cousin Machu Picchu attracts more attention, so this historical site is usually quiet as a result. You may not find many tourists there, but you will certainly run into wild llamas who share the space and help keep the grass trim.
The heat from the Tungurahua volcano rises through the earth and warms the water for the hot springs. For a peaceful soak in the mineral-rich water, you may want to avoid the water-park style springs for families with small children. Push your body to its limits by jumping into an icy cold stream or stand under a waterfall after swimming in the hot spring. For a real treat, try the mountain top Luna Runtun, where you can relax in the water and sip cocktails while you enjoy the amazing views overlooking the city as the sun goes down.
For something a little different, visit the collection of cascading waterfalls that run down the side of the gorge in Baños. The Ruta De Las Cascadas follows the road between Baños and Puyo, guiding tourists past each of these magnificent waterfalls. The route can be traveled by bike or by bus with stops offs and activities along the way. Suspension bridge walks, cable car rides and even bridge jumping are all available.
Visiting the biggest market in Ecuador, the Otavalo, is a great way to sample authentic Andean life. From textiles and crafts to food and livestock, this multi-colored spectacle sells everything you can think of. You will find the ripest fruit and the liveliest animals that Ecuador has to display. Try arriving early to see the set up of the stalls and hear the greetings of the vendors before the day breaks.
Sitting on the Pacific coastline of Ecuador is the small town of Montañita. With its sandy beaches and lively Pacific Ocean, this laid back town is famous for hosting various surfing competitions. For beginners, watching the advanced surfers or taking lessons for themselves are great ways to pass the time. Everything you might need is available in Montañita, including equipment, wetsuits, and instructors, so you don't need to go prepared.