Visiting Ecuador: South America’s New Adventure Capital

14 May
Ecuador Volcano

Ecuador Volcano

At first, I screamed. Diving headfirst off a cliff, harnessed only by a carabineer swinging along a greasy cable, can have that effect. But after the initial leap’s stomach flip passed, I was flying. With a slight whistle reverberating in my ears, I ziplined along the Route of the Waterfalls above a river that poured like rich, frothy coffee from the Andes to the Amazon, through high valley walls swimming with wispy clouds in arms reach. Time slowed down, the way it tends to in Ecuador.

Imagine a country the size of Colorado. Now imagine Colorado with a sun-kissed coast, cloud forest, primary jungle and the second-highest mountain range on earth, and what you get is something out of adventure traveler fanfic: Ecuador. Sitting in the Northwestern corner of South America, Ecuador’s compact size and diverse landscapes means you could be swimming with sea lions in the wild waters surrounding the Galapagos Islands one day, horseback riding through rosy quinoa fields along the Avenue of the Volcanoes the next, and riding the world-class white-waters of Amazonian tributaries the third. The list, literally, goes on.

So if you’re considering a South American adventure but can’t afford the time and budget restrictions, don’t completely cross it off your list. Get the best the continent has to offer without sacrificing a second of action by visiting Ecuador- the country that has it all.

1. Horseback Riding

Cowboy country lives on in the Andean highlands of Ecuador, where chagras (Ecuadorian cowboys) donning fedora hats and floor-length ponchos maintain the culture they’ve known since the Spaniards introduced horses to the country in the 1500s. But your equestrian adventure doesn’t have to be restricted to the mountains; there are plenty of riding opportunities along the Pacific coast, most spectacularly in the serene northwest Esmeraldas province, famous for its laid-back beaches and lush greenery.

The most popular and perhaps wildest circuit runs along the rugged cordillera of Volcanoe Avenue, where riders can experience Ecuador’s classic colonial culture by lodging in regal haciendas, or traditional cattle estates, along their route. Beginners may want to book a day trip, while experienced riders can enjoy multi-day ‘safaris’ that guide them through cloud-swept valleys and patchwork hills to a bullfighting ring, or two.

2. Surfing

Almost every country with a coast has at least one carefree, hippy beach town, and that means one thing for adventure travelers: surfing. Ecuador’s no exception, and Montañita takes the cake as far as sun and fun goes. Located on the southern Atlantic coast of the country, the small town of Montañita has become internationally recognized as a top surfing destination, and even hosts an annual competition forming part of the Latin American Surf Tour.

Visitors can check out a number of surf camps, hostels and shops to network with the multicultural surfing community or to perfect their curve. And when in need of a break, can take their siesta in a shaded hammock to the tunes of Bob Marley sounding from the nearest bamboo hut.

3. Cycling

From volcanic ash trails to twisting jungle paths, there’s no part of Ecuador that isn’t fit for biking. But to narrow it down, try the most popular route in the country, which leads you downhill from the eastern montane forests of Baños (6,000 feet, 1,828 meters) to Ecuador’s doorway to the Amazon, Puyo. It’s called the Route of the Waterfalls, a 37-mile tour through the tropical Pastaza Valley.

Baños

Baños

Adrenaline junkies will feel right at home in Baños alone, with its status as the adventure capital of Ecuador itself (8 of the 10 items on this list can be done in Baños in 3 days.) Choose from one of the many certified, indigenous and bilingual guides in the city to guide you to the rainforest or just rent bikes from them and go on your own. They’ll arrange to pick you up in Puyo and transport you back to Baños, where you can end the day soaking in the natural thermal baths that give the city its name.

4. Scuba diving/Snorkeling

As one of the Wonders of the World, the Galapagos Islands is Ecuador’s #1 tourist attraction, drawing in visitors in record-breaking numbers. Adventure travelers looking for the scuba diving or snorkeling experience of a lifetime need look no further than South Plaza, the best island of the archipelago for underwater sports. The rocky 427 square-mile expanse is home to over 1,000 sea lions that will swim right up to you for a closer look. Travelers on a tighter budget can check out Silver Island, more commonly known as the ‘Poor Man’s Galapagos’, since visitors can enjoy many of the migratory birds that fly from Galapagos regularly at a percentage of the price.

Blue Footed Boobies on Silver Island

Blue Footed Boobies on Silver Island

5. Climbing

Quito, Cotopaxi Volcano

Quito, Cotopaxi Volcano

With its sizable claim to the epic Andean cordillera, it’s no wonder why Ecuador reigns as a premier mountaineering destination. But what specifically makes the country the best for climbing in the continent is the mountains’ easy accessibility combined with a plethora of local expert guides ready to take you there. Ecuador’s best climbs are located in the Avenue of the Volcanoes, where the fierce Cotopaxi (19,348 feet, 5,897 meters) and Chimborazo (20,703 feet, 6,310 meters) volcanoes rule above the rest.

Be sure to hang closeby in the country’s capital of Quito for a few days or trek up some of the smaller mountains first to acclimatize appropriately. First-timers can safely enjoy phenomenal views from the peaks of smaller mountains.

6. Rafting

Ecuador’s white-water rafting opportunities are all located in the east, where water that spills in from icy volcanic peaks eventually join to form ferocious Amazonian tributaries. Tena is the jungle city to launch out of onto the hardcore currents of the notorious Pastaza or Napo rivers, on tours ranging from half-day to ten day excursions.

7. Ziplining

Most widely known as ‘canopy’ in Ecuador, ziplining is a hugely popular way to get a quick and affordable adrenaline rush. If you haven’t tried it, just imagine gliding swiftly along a giant zipper in the sky, opening up one hell of a view along the way. The sleepy town of Mindo in the heart of Ecuador’s western cloud forest is among the world’s top ziplining destinations, offering a radical approach to experiencing the region’s unrivaled biodiversity.

8. Canyoning (Canyoneering)

The adventure sport sensation known as ‘canyoning’ in Ecuador involves scrambling up narrow canyons before rappelling down their waterfalls. Or, sometimes hiking down the canyons, then climbing back up against the waterfall’s current. Or, if you like, gorge-hopping, swimming, then bedrock scrambling. Any combination of risky maneuvers you can take to enter and exit a canyon in a nonsensical, fantastic manner, can probably qualify as canyoning. And it’s awesome.

9. Kayaking

Ecuador is a kayaking paradise, since it has one of the highest concentration of rivers in the world, thus making it more logistically possible to access many different runs all from one base. The tropical white-water you’ll encounter on these runs range from class II for novices to class V for experts. Students dedicated to learning the craft will feel welcome in any of the reputable kayak schools that can be found in Baños and Tena.

10. Hiking

Cajas hiking

Cajas hiking

Rafting, surfing, mountain biking – there are plenty of exhilarating ways to get your adrenaline going, but there’s nothing quite like taking a walk. When hiking, you interact with your environment in a slower, more intimate way, and overcome challenges that make those ancient ruin or hidden waterfalls all the more rewarding. One of the best treks in Ecuador is located in the southern highlands of Cajas National Park, which comprises of mystic dwarf forests, close to 300 lakes and a substantial portion of the legendary Inca Trail.

For such an underrated off-the-beaten-track-destination, Ecuador’s opportunities for adventure are easily accessible, navigable and affordable, even if you’re on a time crunch. Coupled with its extraordinary biodiversity and impressive grassroots tourist industry, it’s the kind of dream destination you have no excuse to overlook, one that reminds us why we travel.

Visiting Ecuador: South America’s New Adventure Capital

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