Monday, August 25, 2014

10 Most Memorable Experiences in Ecuador

We've had so many wonderful experiences during our trips to Ecuador, but as the novelist Pico Iyer said, "Travel is like love, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end," and I for one cannot wait to find another unforgettable experience.

1. Stepping back in time in Quito, a wonderful introduction to South America
Located high up in the Andes, you can see the dramatic landscape of Ecuador’s capital even before you land, as you can get some of the best aerials views from the plane.

The compact Old Town, known as the centro histórico, is the city’s undisputed highlight, a jumble of narrow streets and wide, cobbled plazas lined with churches, monasteries, mansions and colorful balconied houses. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Old Town contains some of the most beautiful Spanish Colonial architecture on the continent.

I certainly enjoyed strolling through the picturesque streets, which I was told was the new and improved version.  There has been an extensive renovation and restoration to this part of town in the last 3 years as part of city's effort to boost tourism.

Sundays (weekends) are a great day(s) to walk around Old Town, as majority of the roads are closed for pedestrians.  Also, churches and cathedrals, which usually charge an entrance fee are opened to public for free.

Although it can get crowded, the atmosphere is festive and fun with different venues of music and street performance everywhere.  The streets are filled with musicians and performers, and every which way I turned, I saw beautiful colonial buildings with the breathtaking scenery of the mountain in the background and the dramatic view of the El Panecillo (Virgin Monument), which was absolutely stunning!  I really enjoyed spending the entire day just strolling, sightseeing and soaking up local culture.

My favorites in Quito:
  • Archbishop’s Place – a nice selection of restuarants & cafes located inside the courtyard
  • Basilica del Voto Nacional, Ecuador’s largest Gothic cathedral, adorned with gargoyles inspired by the country’s iguanas, pumas and Galápagos tortoises
  • Calle García Moreno
  • Calle Sucre to Plaza San Francisco, which is one of the loveliest squares I've seen.  It's a perfect place (Tianguez Cultural Cafe) to stop for lunch, drinks or just to sit and enjoy the view.
  • City Hall
  • El Sagrario
  • La Compañia de Jesus Church
  • Plaza de la Independencia (Grand Plaza)
  • Presidential Palace
  • Santo Domingo Plaza
  • Teleferrico Cable Car & the view of the city from the top – the fast and thrilling ride up the mountain in this cable-car gondola is usually enough to put a smile on most kids' faces.
Not to miss:
  • the changing of the guards at Plaza de la Independencia (every Monday at 11:00am)
  • Sunday mornings in Old Town, which is closed for pedestrians
  • the view of Quito from the top of Basilica del Voto Nacional
  • La Casa de la Cultura, a phenomenal space that exhibits all types of art and cultural venues & the indigenous market (about 2 blocks away from la Casa de la Cultura) consists of some of the finest selection of Indigenous Arts and Crafts from Otavalo.
2. Straddling the Equator & witnessing the wizardry at the Inti-Ñan Solar Museum
It’s no secret that the name Ecuador stems from the fact that the Equator passes right through the country, and seeing the line that marks the “Mital del Mundo” has become one of tourists’ favorite attractions.  However, what I enjoyed more than standing at the monument was the visiting the Inti-Ñan Solar Museum just up the road (240 meters north)that claims to lie exactly on the equator itself.

For an entrance fee $3, you get a guided tour and demonstrations of various equator- and solar-related phenomena and a certificate of being an “Egg Master” if you manage to balance an egg on a nail.  The guided tour is very entertaining, especially for children, and you can participate in various experiments, such as the Coriolis Effect, which demonstrates the directional change of water. When a bucket of water was poured into a tub on the Northern Hemisphere, it swirled in one direction (as indicated by the leaves floating in the water), whereas on the Southern Hemisphere side, the water swirled in the opposite direction, and the distance between the two hemispheres is only few feet!  Although some of the “scientific” experiments seemed more like wizardry, it definitely kept us, especially our 6 year old entertained!
3. Visiting Baños de Agua Santa & the Amazon Basin

The Ecuadorian Rainforest is located in the eastern lowlands of Ecuador.  This region that is is the upper edge of the world’s Amazon basin, descends from the foothills of the Andes to 200 meters.

In Ecuador there are more than 5.5 million square kilometers of this kind of forest, and it’s considered one of the 25 interesting areas of biodiversity on the planet with more variety of plants and animals than any other place in the world.  It’s also loaded with impressive wildlife, with quiet blackwater lagoons, raging rivers, dense tree canopies and flooded forests, and it's home to traditional indigenous tribes. It truly is a scene straight out of Indiana Jones movie.

We opted to stay in Baños de Agua Santa, a favorite among the backpackers and adventure seekers, and although I had some reservations about visiting Baños, as I had visions of wannabe bohemian atmosphere of the Montañita in mind, surprisingly, it turned out to be a lovely little town.  

Although the town is known mainly for its thermal pools (hence the name Baños or baths), which are nourished by the mineral-rich naturally heated springs of Tungurahua, it also offers a wide variety of extreme sport activities, such as kayaking, rock Climbing, paragliding, mountain biking, trekking, bridge jumping, zip Lining, and horseback riding.

As the town is located in the midst of some of the most spectacular nature in Ecuador adorned by beautiful waterfalls, you can easily spend the entire day driving around the area enjoying the picturesque scenery and exceptional views of the upper Amazon Basin stretch out below.  Also, Baños is an excellent base from which to explore the jungle and neighboring protected areas, such as Parque Nacional Sangay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983.

We especially love the hike to Pailon del Diablo Waterfall, which was twice the size of the Vernal Fall in Yosemite.  We were able to hike all the way to the fall, so close that we were drenched afterwards.  Aside from the spectacular scenery, we love the walk across the bridge over a gorge that seemed to drop to the core of the earth.  Also, the tour of the Amazon ended up being the GREAT adventure we'd hoped for – made me feel like we were indeed searching for the Temple of Doom!
4. Riding the Nariz del Diablo Railroad & the spectacular scenery of the Ecuador's Andes

In 1899, after 25 years of frustrated plans and abortive attempts, work finally started on Ecuador’s first railway, which would link the coastal city of Guayaquil with the capital, Quito. The greatest obstacle, which prompted the line to be dubbed “the most difficult railway in the world”, was met 130km east of Guayaquil at a near-vertical wall of rock, known as El Nariz del Diablo (The Devil’s Nose). The ingenious engineering solution was to carve a series of tight zigzags out of the rock, which allowed the train to climb 800m at a gradient of 1-in-18 by going forwards then backwards up the tracks.

The train from from Guayaquil to Riobamba and Quito ran for almost a century, until 1997, when El Niño-related weather devastated the tracks, wiping out most of the railline.  Currently, a controversial multi-million-dollar project to restore almost the entire original rail network is underway, and as of summer 2013, only the 12 km stretch from Alausí to Sibambe has been operational.

The Devil’s Nose train (Nariz del Diablo) takes off from a little town of Alausi, located about 4 hours north from Cuenca (also 6 hours east of Guayaquil and 4 hours south of Quito). The closest big city is Riobamba (1½ hours away).  Although most tourists book their trips through a tour company, we decided to do the trip on our own.

On the contrary to what's stated on their website, the train operates Tue - Sun, 3 times a day: 8am, 11am, and 3pm. Also, we could not buy the tickets through their website or get through to anyone when we called the tel. no. stated on the website.  The ONLY way we were able to get the ticket was to purchase them in person at the train station in Alausi (open 8am-3pm).

However, as this is an extremely popular activity among tourists, the tickets go fast, and you may not be able to get tickets for the same day. We arrived at the train station around 2:30pm and got the last 4 tickets on the last train the next day.  Therefore, be warned, those looking for a day trip may be disappointed.

Tickets for adults are $25 ($14.50 for 65+ & children 2+), which is an extremely reasonable in comparison to trains in N. America and Europe, and as the other reviews have mentioned, the price includes a light snack and a beverage at the Sibamba train station.

Although all cars are renovated and restored, some of the cars have better photo ops and are more spacious.  Regardless, throughout the (40 min one way) ride, we were privy to the most spectacular view of the area, and the Devil’s Nose train was one of the most memorable experiences we’ve had in Ecuador.

5. Strolling through the beautiful streets of Cuenca’s Old Town
Nestled in the Andes Sierra, Ecuador's core, Cuenca is a gorgeous little city filled with stunning colonial architecture, bustling highland markets and diverse mix of people.

Walking through the city’s Old Town with its narrow cobblestone streets and a rich collection of colonial-era churches, plazas, and buildings, you feel as if you’ve been transported to a different place and time. And the presence of its diverse cultures and various indigenous population (Incas and Cañaris) only heightens this magical setting.

It’s no wonder that most locals regard Cuenca, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as Ecuador’s most beautiful city.

My favorites in Cuenca:

  • the city's main plaza, Parque Calderón
  • Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción
  • Church of El Carmen de la Asunción & the flower market
  • Plaza de San Sebastián
  • Museo Municipal de Arte Moderno
  • Church of Santo Domingo
  • Plaza San Blas
  • Museo del Banco Central & Pumapungo archaeological site
  • The Todos Los Santos archaeological site – symbolizes the three layers of history, in a single area, you'll see structures built by Cañari, Inca, and Spanish settlers.
  • the magnificent view of Cuenca from Mirador Turi
  • la Casa de la Mujer
  • one of the local markets, Feira Libre Mercado, full of vendors who sold everything from fresh produce, meats and seafood, animals for pets to flowers.  I've been to  many great outdoor markets all over the world, and I so enjoy them, as it's always a great introduction to the local people and culture.
6. Magnificent murals of Cuenca
One of my favorite thing to do in Cuenca was taking walks along the Río Tomebamba admiring the graffiti art.  As part of Cuenca Mayor's effort to clean up city's graffiti, artists were hired to paint and display some of the finest works of art along the walls of buildings, much like the graffiti art project in San Francisco.  Vibrant culture and art is one of the things that has really impressed me about Cuenca, and everywhere I looked, there was so much creativity and beauty.  It’s easy to see why this paradise that has lured thousands of Americans away from home.
7. Scrumptious meals

I loved to travel, and what I love more than finding spectacular scenery or breathtaking sights is discovering great food!  And there are plenty of great meals to be had in Ecuador. 

Some of the best meals I’ve had were in smaller towns.  As the majority of Ecuadorians spend their weekends and leisure time with their families, sharing a meal is an important part of these moments.  Therefore, on the weekends, you will find that most restaurants are packed with families, party of 4 or more, and usually, that’s where you will find the tastiest food in Ecuador.  Although as a rule of thumb, I tend to steer clear of the restaurants recommended by travel guides or travel magazines, but especially in Ecuador, the best way to find a great place to eat is to ask the locals.

My favorite Ecuadorian dishes:

  • Maduros – grilled plantains, which are usually served as a side dish
  • Roasted Pig – A common Ecuadorean delicacy is roasted pig, especially common in the sierra region.  The meat is extremely tender, and with a generous helpings of mote (corn kernels, which have been boiled and peeled) and llapingachos (mash potatoes balled up and then lightly fired), it make for an excellent meal anytime of the day – literally, as you'll see a whole pig roasting on spits at little stands along the highways or on sidewalks in almost every little town.
  • Seafood & Ceviche – Seafood is most plentiful and best on the coast, where shrimp, lobster, and a variety of fish are always on the menu.  The coastal region is famous for its ceviche, a cold concoction of fish, conch, and/or shrimp marinated in lime juice and seasonings.  The marinade is said to "cook" the fish or seafood.  Ceviche is a great treat for lunch or as an appetizer.
  • Soups – Soup is a serious fare in Ecuador.  Not only does it come with almost every lunch and dinner, but it can easily be a whole meal by itself.  My favorites are Locro (a potato-cheese soup) and any form of Sopa de Mariscos (seafood soup).
  • Trout – Trout in Ecuador is like chicken in the US.  You can get trout anyway you like (fried, breaded & fried, grilled) in almost every Ecuadorian restaurant, and they are guuud.  It usually comes with salad, rice and/or fries.  
Recommended restaurants in Ecuador:
  • Café Calé de Queso (Cuenca: Baltazara de Calderon 3-76 & Gran Colombia)  
  • Fabianos (Cuenca: President Cordova 4-84) 
  • Oro Mar (Cuenca)
  • Red Crab (Cuenca: Luis Moreno Mora 3-63 & Francisco Moscoso)
  • Corvel (Paute: Simon Bolivar 8 -37, tel. 072251556) – a lovely restaurant about 45 min. outside of Cuenca in the town of Paute.  Corvel looked like a 5-star restaurant in Manhattan, and the food is well worth the drive.
  • El Agave (Cuenca-Giron: Panamericana Sur Km 17.5, tel. 4035065) – located about 30 min outside of Cuenca about half way to the town of Giron
  • Hosteria Dos Chorreras (Cuenca: Cajas National Park)
  • Anabelle's American Ice Cream Shop (Chordeleg)
  • Delicias del Mar (Ambato: Av. Gonzales Suarez y Abdon Calderon, tel. 03 2820 891 & Riobamba: Av. Daniel leon Borja y Autachi, tel. 03 2940 855)
  • Amarelo Coffee & Shop (Banos: Pedro Vicente Maldonado y Ambato)
  • Le Petit Restaurante (Banos: 16 de Diciembre 240 y Montalvo)
  • Pappardelle Ristorante (Banos: Rocafuerte y 16 de Diciembre)
  • Oh Mar (Salinas)
  • ALL the little Cabanas along the beach in Olón
8. Watching Germany make World Cup history
Germany winning the FIFA World Cup makes it the first time a European country has ever won the championship in South America.  It is a moment that will go down in history, but was certainly not the only memorable experience we had during this trip.  Watching the championship in South America, the continent where World Cup was born, was absolutely exciting and entertaining, and especially for our 6 year old boy, it was an experience he will never forget.

9. Hiking in the majestic Cajas National Park

Cuenca is surrounded by beautiful landscapes and nature, and Cajas National Park is one of the most magnificent sites.

This hiker's paradise, also Ecuador’s natural heritage, is located about 30 minute west of the city, is filled with golden-brown grasslands reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands and over 200 clear cold mountain lakes.  Although the water is too cold for swimming, their clear still surface gives them an enchanting mirror-like character, especially when they reflect the colors of the deep blue mountain sky.

10. Enjoying the beauty & tranquility of Ecuador's Pacific Coast
Though better known for its Andean Mountains, Amazonian rainforest and the unique Galapagos Islands, Ecuador has a spectacular beaches that rivals some of the best beaches along the Pacific Ocean. Stretching some 1,500km (937 miles) from the border of Colombia to Peru in the south, the Pacific coast embraces long expanses of deserted beaches, with warm swimming waters, charming fishing villages, luxury vacation resorts, surfing beaches, and wildlife sanctuaries.

The road building projects along the coast opened up much of this area, and few towns, like Montañita, Salinas and Manta, have already been “discovered” by international and local tourists alike. Nevertheless, much of Ecuadorian coastline remains undeveloped and unspoiled, and in many little villages, I felt as if we were the only tourists.

It’s a scenery that so many travelers of earlier generations 20-30 years ago have described of the Yucatan and Baja Peninsula, the Caribbean or the Greek Isles, surrounded by sense of serenity, organic beauty, and of course, the friendly people who seem to enjoy a simple way of life. La Costa is a state of being, a state of mind and a place where Ecuadorian vacationers like to go to spend time with their family, to relax and have fun!
Ecuador's Pacific coast is full of little villages with miles and miles of gorgeous white-sand beaches, and although they lack some infrastructure, they're charming, family friendly, and full of quaint little shops and open-air restaurants (cabanas) that serve freshly prepared delicious meals. Also, it was fun to witness the daily ritual of fishing, where the whole village comes out to help and collect the day's catch. Then, once the entire net full of fish is pulled onto the beach, everyone, even the tourists, is allowed to take home as much fish as they can carry. It was a wonderful experience in getting to know the locals, and we came back not only with a bucket full of fish that we grilled for dinner that evening but also with a truly unforgettable travel memory.


  1. Absolutely mesmerizing! Makes me want to move to Ecuador! (Ah wait a minute... I already live here)
    Well done.

    1. Thanks ... it's a lovely place! We really enjoyed being there.