Ecuador Beyond The Galapagos: Mainland Destinations Worth The Trip

Waterfall, Banos de Santa Agua, Ecuador
Waterfall, Banos de Santa Agua

Equal in size to Colorado, Ecuador is a country that packs a punch.  Comprised of four regions, Ecuador offers everything from high rise hotels to remote jungle cabanas.  Originally, I had planned on a mere three weeks in this beautiful country; however, I found myself crossing the border to Peru with just 48 hours to go on my 90 day tourist stamp.  Though many people come to this country for the Galapagos Islands, visitors should also consider the following mainland sites.

Just 2.5 hours north of Quito, the market town of Otavalo is a premiere shopping destination for savvy consumers looking for phenomenal deals.  The local population — called Otavalenos — are one of the most commercially successful indigenous groups in the world, using traditional skills in weaving and leather-making to turn tourism to their favor.  Every Saturday, a trifecta of markets explodes in town, with textile vendors jockeying for selling space, fruit markets spilling into narrow side streets and the popular animal market showcasing piglets, puppies, and giant hogs.

For a surfer’s paradise crossed with bohemian vibes, Montanita is the gem of Ecuador’s Ruta del Sol or the Route of the Sun.  In the morning, beach-lovers lounge on powdery sands and sip freshly blended fruit juices, while at sunset, music begins to drift down cobbled avenues as handicraft sellers pack up for the day and night clubs un-shutter their doors.  Here, you can sample a traditional fish stew breakfast off the trolley.  For only $2 USD, it’s a great way to fuel a morning of surfing.

Once you’re worn out from beach parties and price haggling, Banos de Santa Agua is a spa town set in the Andes Mountains, surrounded by cascading waterfalls.  Small but modernized, Banos offers artistic bed and breakfasts, mineral rich pools, and international cuisine.  Thanks to the burgeoning expat community, the world dines in Banos.  Swiss, Indian, and Italian fusions deliver a gastronomical punch every night of the week.  Even the town’s Stray Dog Brewpub melds local ingredients such as mora (blackberries) with hoppy, malted libations.

If UNESCO World Heritage is a travel goal, book the 2-hour flight or brave the long bus ride to Cuenca, whose city center was added to the list for its many well-preserved and historical buildings.  For example, while the Old Cathedral was built in 1557 and today is a museum, the Monastery of El Carmen de Asuncion was founded in 1682 and features a beautiful stone facade and golden pulpit.  Additionally, the southern capital of Ecuador offers tradition, architecture, delicious food and good value for your money.  Churches loom against the skyline, international fare keeps locals happy, and the so-called “singsong” Spanish will entertain linguists for months.  And if you’re looking to settle down for awhile, Cuenca has a booming expat community.

Just five hours away from the Peruvian border, Vilcabamba is called the Valley of Longevity.  People boast living for decades beyond average human expiration dates.  Locals say the spring-fed waters fuel the extraordinarily long lives of Vilcabamba’s inhabitants; however, with hikes up high peaks and sweeping green vistas, travelers can feel the valley’s energies seeping deeper into their bones.  The local music scene thrives and small restaurants and cafes keep the cuisine interesting.

While a trip to the Galapagos Islands is a trip of a lifetime, travelers should consider adding a few extra days to their itineraries for these mainland experiences.  With an economy run on the U.S. dollar and cheap transportation, Ecuador is a prime destination that will not disappoint.  In very few countries can you trek the jungle, laze on the beach, and swim with penguins–all on one vacation.