Lying smack in the middle of the equator, Ecuador is one of our hottest destinations (both literally and figuratively). Discover its best-kept secrets...
With its incomparable wildlife, mystical forests, snow-capped volcanoes and old-style colonial architecture, Ecuador is the place to go for year-round sunshine, culture and adventure. Our South American expert Millie has just returned from there – here are some of her favourite lesser-known experiences (as well as some classic, tick-box ones).
Catch a train to the extreme points of Ecuador
Get off the beaten (railway) track with Tren Ecuador. Choose from a series of immersive journeys that run from the Andes to the Ecuadorian Pacific Ocean, with a flip book of interchanging scenery – ocean, mountains and verdant valleys – unrolling right outside of your window. Get ready to discover the extremities of this multi-faceted country. Some of the experiences available, like the Train of the Volcanoes, focus on Ecuador’s active peaks (like Mama Tungurahua and Cotopaxi), others, like the Ice Trains – which likewise do exactly what they say on the tin – will take you on a voyage through the Urbina moor, more than 4,000 metres in the foothills of Chimborazo, to meet one of the last ice merchants of Ecuador.
Explore the historical sites of Ecuador on board the Cruise Train and add an extended stay in colonial Cuenca, a visit that is highly recommended by Millie. Saving the best until last, the most daring Tren Ecuador expedition of all is the boldly-named ‘Devil’s Nose’ tour which takes you on a vertiginous 500-metre drop along a zig-zag road, which is one of the country’s most impressive pieces of engineering.
Go wildlife-spotting and birdwatching
Even those with a passing interest in wildlife will know of the abundant flora and fauna of Ecuador. The region is a birdwatching paradise, teeming with more than 1,500 aviary species from the eye-popping scarlet macaw and the emerald toucanet to the squid-munching waved albatross – not forgetting the emblematic Andean condor, whose three-metre wingspan makes it ones of the largest flying birds. See three-toed sloths, armadillos, a plethora of monkeys including squirrel, capuchin, spider, woolly and other primates, that live among the red mangroves and evergreen trees of the Ecuadorian rainforest.
Get the Hacienda experience
Discover the traditional ranch lifestyle in one of the most renowned haciendas in Ecuador. Millie recommends Hacienda Zuleta, set on a 16th-century farm that offers cooking classes, horse-drawn carriage rides among many other activities and even has its own condor rehabilitation programme. ‘It also has its own cheese-making factory, herb gardens and hundreds of horses for keen equestrians,’ she says. Also offering a piece of rural Ecuador is Hacienda Cusin which boasts 17th-century architecture and verdant mountains where you can go horse-riding, mountain-biking and hiking in the countryside.
Lose yourself in ethereal cloud forests
You can walk (quite literally) with your head in the clouds in Ecuador. Due to their climate, these enchanting forests create a dense fog, or clouds, that hang above the trees like a misty curtain, providing the moisture needed by the plants to grow. Cooler than hot and humid lowland rainforests, the cloud forests are found high up in the Andes and enjoy a steady rainfall throughout the year. For this reason, they are covered in overgrown green moss and vegetation (like orchids and bromeliads) which is why they are also known as ‘mossy forests’. If you’re lucky, you’ll even catch a sight of the spectacled Andean bear – South America’s only bear that is endemic to the area.
Stay at Mashpi Lodge
Wake up in the middle of the jungle at Mashpi Lodge, one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World. This eco-friendly hotel was built using sustainable material like recycled steel, tropical wood and glass, on land seized from loggers. There, you can get involved in a multitude of thrilling activities that include a trek along ‘The Luminous Trail’ (a night-time escapade in the glow of the luminous fox fire fungus) and ride the Sky Bike up in the forest canopy, which can be combined with a hike to the Laguna waterfalls and the ‘Capuchin Monkey Trail’.
Watch a technicolour of hummingbirds flutter in the Hummingbird Garden and absorb the jungle view from the observation tower. This hotel encompasses all the best that the cloud forests have to offer and you’ll be spoilt for things to do, in one of the most stunning Ecuadorian locations.
Feeling inspired? Check out more Ecuador itineraries here or contact Millie for a tailor-made holiday on 0207 337 9010.