Travel Ecuador: Quito, Cuenca, the Baños de Santa Agua and the Galapagos Islands

Ecuador’s most privileged call to fame is perhaps the Galapagos Islands where English naturalist Charles Darwin arrived in 1835, filling with him sights and experiences that inspired him to create his controversial Theory of Evolution. Beyond the Galapagos, however, Ecuador is also proud of its well preserved indigenous cultures that live harmoniously alongside contemporary populations, and the myriad of national parks and conservation areas that rank among the most beautiful in all of South America. With clusters of volcanic ranges, mangroves harboring exotic underwater life, and the entire Amazon Rainforest in the east, there’s never a shortage of sensations to take in. Those coming from the United States might also be relieved to know that the currency is the American Dollar. Ecuador might not have the international spotlight of its southern neighbor, Peru, but it has every bit the elements to fulfill your South America vacation to a maximum.

Two friendly girls
Two friendly girls (image by philipbouchard)

Here are some of the most popular destinations for your Ecuador holidays.

  • Galapagos Islands
    Just the name of the Galapagos Islands immediately conjures up the image of a faraway exotic land. Indeed, situated more than 580 miles (970 kilometers) from the coast, the archipelago is well removed from society, which is precisely what makes it such an anomaly. As the islands were at no time ever connected to the mainland, the animals that have learned to call the Galapagos home developed entirely on their own. Many species are found only in the Galapagos, such as the marine and land iguanas, flightless cormorants, and fur sea lions. It is also one of the most premier places to go bird spotting for types such as falcons, boobies, gulls, pelicans, hawks, and countless more. Today, the traveler can easily arrange to arrive for their Galapagos cruises flying from Lima, Quito, or Guayaquil, a trip which takes about 2 hours. The 6 main islands have a total population of 31,000; most visitors will find themselves on Santa Cruz which features the town of Puerto Ayora as the main resource center. There’s usually never a bad time to take a Galapagos trip although occasionally the weather might be a bit cloudy. Try snorkeling but be careful not to touch the sensitive creatures; or sail between the islands admiring the distinctive volcanic formations and the feeling of being so far from the rest of the world.
A Galapagos penguin
A Galapagos penguin (image by alh1)
  • Quito
    Quito, the capital of Ecuador, is literally the center of the world. That is, the equatorial divide runs through a point 14 miles (23 kilomters) north of the city, a fantastic novelty destination marked with a monument and lovely park. The land that once used to be part of the expansive Inca Empire now boasts a gorgeous colonial center known as the Plaza de la Independencia whose surrounding facades are especially striking when delicately lit up in the evenings. Visit the San Francisco church (Quito’s patron saint), Santo Domingo church, Metropolitan Cultural Center, and National Museum of Colonial Art for a well-rounded crash course on Ecuadorian history and culture. The Central Market is always an enriching place to watch the locals stroll in and out as part of their daily lives. But the capital is certainly not stuck in the old days. Modern Quito has countless trendy hangouts, restaurants, and parks, many based out of the La Mariscal neighborhood. To marvel at and get an idea of the city’s impressive scale, ascend the Teleférico funicular, an easy daytrip which takes you past 14 volcanoes including the famous Cotopaxi set 13,451 feet (4100 meters) high.
Quito's Plaza Grande
Quito’s Plaza Grande (image by lumierefl)
  • Cuenca
    One city in Ecuador where you won’t have to worry about arriving in the correct season is Cuenca, a place where the weather is always welcoming. Close to the border, Cuenca is an easy transfer from Peru’s northern beach town, Tumbes. The middle of town has a great Municipal Museum of Modern Art, and the Turi viewpoint offers a breathtaking panoramic view of the area. Getting out for the day, travelers should try the hot sulfur baths at Baños (not to be confused with the adventure hub further north), and explore the Cusco-style Ingapirca Inca ruins 45 minutes away or by way of a 3-day Inca Trail hike starting from Achupallas. The most ambitious can visit Cajas National Park, especially great for fishing enthusiasts.
Street scene in Cuenca
Street scene in Cuenca (image by Ramblurr)
  • Baños de Agua Santa
    Baños, almost literally in the center of Ecuador, is practically a land straight out of the storybooks. Waterfalls complete every vantage point within the town, and a number of hot springs are only a short trip away. The local basilica is a hub for religious pilgrims from all around, while most other travelers come for the thrills and potential for adventure. Trekking, climbing, cycling, and rafting are among the most popular excursions, and those without their own equipment or knowledge of the geography can easily find operators and guides in town. At the edge of the jungle, Amazon trips should be included as part of any Baños trips. The crowd tends to be young, active, outdoor enthusiasts, and international, comparable to another one of South America’s top adventure capitals, Huaraz in Peru. Baños’ restaurants serve lofty portions of hearty food perfect for rejuvenating after a long day of physical activity, and sugar cane is among its traditional treats.
Baños de Agua Santa
Waterfall in Baños de Agua Santa (image by elrentaplats)

Ecuador offers a diverse travel experience, from historic colonial cities to the Andean Highlands and the Amazon Basin, there are so many things to discover. In our next article we will introduce you to some other important tourist destinations of Ecuador.

Connie is a travel expert at Latin America For Less, a US-registered travel agency with a strong Peruvian presence. The company specializes in organizing fully customized and best value travel packages to Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, and Costa Rica.

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