Ecuador — Attractions
Ecuador is a fascinating country that is rich in natural wonders, from the volcanoes and hot springs of the highland national parks to the mangroves and beaches of the coasts. The famous Galapagos Islands are one of the main attractions, particularly for divers who want to get up close and personal with whale sharks, rays and other marine wildlife. Ecuador’s human history is also interesting, with two UNESCO World Heritage old towns to explore, as well as exhibits on colonial and pre-Columbian history in the many museums across the country.
Galapagos Islands National Park and Marine Reserve
The Galapagos Islands are a remote volcanic archipelago that is best known for the wildlife that was studied by naturalist Charles Darwin. About 97 percent of the islands and surrounding waters form the World Heritage designated national park and marine reserve, which attracts tourists from all over the world. Only accessible by boat or plane, it is necessary to explore the islands with an official guide. Diving is becoming one of the most popular activities in the Galapagos due to the manta rays, hammerheads, iguanas, and whale sharks that frequent the area.
Address: Directorate of the Galapagos National Park, Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, Ecuador
Quito Old Town
Located of 9,350 feet above sea level in Pichincha province, Quito’s old town was one of the first cities in the world to gain UNESCO World Heritage listing for its well-preserved historic center which was largely constructed as a grid during the 16th century. Most of the mud-brick houses are designed in Spanish or Moorish style and are often covered by plaster or stucco. The public and religious buildings are more elaborate with arched windows and statue-decorated exteriors. The main square is home to the archbishop’s palace, the city hall, the government palace, and a magnificent cathedral. There are several notable religious buildings in the area, including the Church and Jesuit College of La Compañía (La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús), which has an elaborate carved stone façade, and the monasteries of San Francisco and Santo Domingo, fine examples of the blended Spanish, Moorish Italian, Flemish, and indigenous style known as the “Baroque school of Quito.”
Address: Quito, Quito Canton, Pichincha Province
Santa Ana de los Rios de Cuenca
The capital of the Azuay province and is located in the Ecuadorian highlands, some 8,200 feet above sea level. The historic city center, Santa Ana de los Ríos de Cuenca, is a UNESCO World Heritage site that was established in 1557 along an orthogonal design. The town has cobblestone streets with marble and whitewashed buildings, one of the most famous being the beautiful blue-and-white domed Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception constructed in 1880. The Monastery Carmen de la Asuncion, built around 1730 resides next to the Plaza de las Flores (flower market), and is another notable historic structure with carved stone decorations and Baroque sculptures inside.
Address: Santa Ana de los Rios de Cuenca, Cuenca, Azuay Province
Cotopaxi National Park
Cotopaxi National Park, named for the Cotopaxi volcano located inside, stretches across the provinces of Cotopaxi, Napo and Pichincha and is about 30 miles south of Quito. At just under 19,350 feet, the conical Cotopaxi is one of the world’s tallest active volcanoes and features a rare equatorial glacier. The peak can be scaled in a day on a guided eight-hour hike, with spectacular views available from the top. Camping, downhill biking and horseback riding are also popular activities. The area also features plains, hills, lava flows, steam fumaroles, and wetlands, and is home to bears, condors, deer, llamas, puma, wild horses, and wolves.
Address: Pichincha, Cotopaxi, Napo Provinces, Ecuador
Museo Nacional del Banco Central del Ecuador
The largest museum in the country, this cultural center in Quito boasts five galleries detailing Ecuador’s history from pre-Columbian to modern times. The Archaeological area has dioramas, mummies, gold jewelry, masks, and other indigenous artifacts dating back to 11,000 BC. The Colonial Art portion displays rich ornamental paintings from 1534 to 1820. The Republican Art Gallery has post-independence period realistic portraits of national heroes, while the Contemporary Gallery is more eclectic, with landscapes, portraits, and modernist works by famous contemporary Ecuadorian artists. The museum is open at varying times from Tuesday to Sunday, with the core hours being 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Address: Avenida Patria, Quito new town, Quito
Middle of the Earth
There are actually two main attractions at the Middle of the Earth. The Intinan Museum is at the actual center, where visitors can use the line designating the exact spot to try fascinating science experiments such as balancing an egg on a nail, walking in a straight line and watching water go straight down, instead of circling either clockwise or counter-clockwise. There are interesting ethnographic exhibitions which include an authentic shrunken head and a replica burial chamber. The second, more famous Middle of the Earth site is the large stone monument about three miles away which features a multi-story museum about indigenous culture in Ecuador (but is not at the exact GPS location of 0).
Address: Intinan Museum, Autopista Manuel Cordova Galarza, a 200 metros del redondel de la Mitad del Mundo, Quito
Sangay National Park
The World Heritage-listed Sangay National Park stretches across the provinces of Chimborazo, Morona Santiago, and Tungurahua, boasting two active volcanoes, Tungurahua and Sangay, as well as glaciers, lakes, waterfalls, and tropical rainforests. The upper parklands are home to mountain tapirs, pumas, Andean foxes, and condors, while the lower forests provide habitats for the spectacled bear, giant otter, Brazilian tapir, jaguars, ocelots, porcupines, and various types of deer and birds. The park is noted for its outstanding natural beauty and attracts visitors who often base themselves in the towns of Riobamba or Banos for hiking, photography and wildlife watching.
Address: Provinces of Morona Santiago, Chimborazo and Tungurahua