Why should I visit Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands?
Why should you visit Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands? The answer is very simple: Ecuador is one of the most beautiful places in the world. And, for a country this small, it certainly has every topographical experience and climate imaginable. From the gorgeous Pacific coastline in the west, through the vibrant cloud and rainforests of the Chocó bioregion just inland, along the soaring snowcapped Andes mountains that run latitudinally through the center and the surrounding highlands, to the lush Amazon region that expands along the nation’s eastern border with neighboring Peru; a visit to Ecuador is an experience like no other. We haven’t even mentioned the amazing Galapagos Islands—the famed archipelago that sits about 600 mi (1000 km) off the coast in the Pacific Ocean.
The Pacific Coast of Mainland Ecuador
The Pacific Coast of Ecuador is replete with fabulous little beach towns where one can enjoy surfing, swimming, snorkeling, whale watching, and exploring. Idyllic sunsets are as memorable as the day tours one can take through numerous national parks featuring secluded beaches, mangroves, forests, and plenty of nature. It is a paradise for adventurous souls seeking to see and experience the tremendous biodiversity on offer in Ecuador.
Some destinations worth considering:
- Machalilla National Park and Isla de la Plata
- Petrified Forest in Puyango
- Los Frailes Beach
- Montañita and Olón
The Chocó Bioregion
The Chocó bioregion is one of the 25 or so most biologically diverse places on the planet. A significant part of the Chocó extends through the central and northern region of Ecuador and is easily accessible from the capital city of Quito (about 3 hours by car). Because of where the Chocó rests altitudinally, there are some distinct abutting ecosystems, both cloud forest, and rainforest. The vegetation is thick, lush, and fantastic, while rivers, streams, and waterfalls abound. These forests are teeming with life and much work is being done to preserve and restore vital biological corridors to improve conditions for the remarkable wildlife in this region.
A few highlights worth exploring:
The Andes Mountains and Surrounding Highlands
Did you know that some of the largest and tallest mountains in the world are in Ecuador? Take for instance, the Cotopaxi volcano, which is easily accessible from Quito. Its national park is a stunning example of the unique and majestic appeal of Ecuador’s highlands, with lagoons, rolling hills, and scenic views.
Lagoons and mountains are a standard feature in the Sierra region. To the north, one can visit the picturesque artisan town of Otavalo at the base of the Imbabura volcano, overlooking the San Pablo Lagoon. Due east of Quito, one can enjoy Papallacta, a small town filled with natural hot springs and awe-inspiring views of Antisana. South of Cotopaxi, near the City of Riobamba, visitors can admire the mighty Chimborazo volcano, the largest mountain in the world and the tallest when measured from base to summit. It is a sight you’ll never forget! Another point of interest is Quilotoa, at once a crater and a lagoon, with a beautiful hiking trail that goes around the entire crater.
The Amazon Region
To the east, the lower highlands extend down to the base of the Amazon region. Ecuador’s most popular gateway is the very popular tourist town of Baños de Agua Santa. This charming spot is host to numerous adventure activities, such as ziplining and bungy jumping, in addition to cycling, hiking, and more. Heading east out of Baños, one arrives in Puyo, one of the Ecuadorian Amazon’s most important municipalities. From here, one can travel north and explore along the Napo River, or visit the numerous caves and river basins of the Pastaza River. Spelunking is one of the most exciting attractions of this region, in addition to river exploration and birding.
Exceptional experiences in the Amazon can be enjoyed by participating in local tourism activities that involve guided exploration and visits to tribal communities deep within the Amazon rainforest. These tours should be organized ahead of time and with as much detail as possible, given that internet and phone connectivity is not that readily available. That said, a truly remarkable experience rewards the adventurous.
Now, let’s explore that other unparalleled destination in Ecuador, the one-and-only Galapagos archipelago!
The Galapagos Islands: A Perfect Year-round Destination
Have you ever wondered, “When is the best time to visit the Galapagos?” One of the great reasons why traveling to Galapagos is an option at any time of the year is because of its very agreeable climate, thanks in large part to its location on the equator. If you want to spend some time in the Enchanted Isles, whether it be in January, December, or any month in between, you’ll always see iconic species and enjoy some of the most enjoyable weather around. Temperatures are ideal both on land and at sea. It never rains for too long, and the mere awe of this amazing place sets the tone for an unparalleled experience.
The Galapagos Islands are one of the best places to see endemic wildlife –meaning, that some of these animals only exist in the archipelago and nowhere else in the world! Recently, Condé Nast Traveler named the archipelago one of the 15 Best Places to See Wildlife Up Close. A remote location such as this one, with no predators, means that there are greater numbers of species unfazed by the presence of humans. Simply put, this means that animals, such as the marine iguana, flightless cormorant, Santa Fe land iguana, Galapagos giant tortoise, Galapagos fur seal, and Galapagos penguin are abundant and can be seen readily and at a surprisingly close distance!
Epic Landscapes and Fabulous Beaches
The Galapagos Islands are home to some of the most breathtaking and inspiring landscapes. Three of the archipelago’s most outstanding beaches (listed below) feature on Flight Network’s list of the World’s Best Beaches in South America, as highlighted by Forbes.
- Red Sand Beach (Rabida Island) boasts a deep red, crushed volcanic shoreline with a high iron content that accounts for its stunning color.
- Tortuga Bay (Santa Cruz) is one of the most pristine, white-sand beaches in the Galapagos, and the nearby inlets are ideal spots for relaxing, swimming, surfing, and other beach activities.
- Cormorant Point (Floreana Island) is notable for its ground coral sand, the presence of pink flamingoes, green sea turtles, and stingrays.
Additionally, and apart from the incredible coastline and underwater landscapes that one can view while at sea or snorkeling, there are some pretty impressive geological formations on a couple of the islands. In particular, there are several lava tubes, craters, and caves on the islands of Santa Cruz, Fernandina, and Floreana that are very much worth checking out:
- Cueva del Cascajo (lava tubes on Santa Cruz)
- El Mirador de los Túneles (Santa Cruz caves)
- Bella Vista (lava tunnels on Santa Cruz)
- Los Gemelos (pit craters)
- Pirate Caves of Floreana Island
Numerous Exploration Options
To fully absorb the beautiful and intricate layout of the Galapagos, one needs only to observe and explore. Each of the islands in the archipelago has a number of distinct qualities, and if you’re interested in seeing all there is to see, your best alternative may be a cruise-based option. If the idea of actively exploring different visitor sites on a daily basis while using an expedition vessel as your home base is not your thing, you may want to consider a land-based option. This alternative allows you to spend more time enjoying an inhabited island (along with one or two nearby visitor sites), exploring on your own, or taking day trips on smaller vessels. There’s no right or wrong answer. It’s entirely up to you.
In all, there are almost 70 vessels in the Galapagos. Of these, only about 18 offer multi-guided activities. The thing to remember is that 97% of the archipelago is part of a Galapagos National Park. The number one rule for the park is that visitors must always be accompanied by a registered Naturalist Guide. Aboard most vessels, you’ll find about one guide for every 16 passengers. This ratio is fairly high compared with a few select boats that average one guide for every 11 passengers. When there are more guides aboard a particular vessel, there are more activities for guests to choose from. This means that some folks can explore the coastline via an activity like snorkeling while others can do some paddleboarding or a little hiking. Simultaneous exploration activities thanks to multiple guides – this is key to enjoying a cruise-based option.
There are a number of things to keep in mind when looking for your perfect Galapagos cruise. You can think of these as useful hacks for choosing the best Galapagos Cruise.
Land-based options, on the other hand, can offer you the peace, tranquility, and relaxation you need if your aim is to get away, do a little exploring, and enjoy some valuable time and relaxation in a truly incredible place. If this is the case, comfort is key. Also, you will want to dedicate a day or two to seeing the coastline and wildlife via boat. There are numerous day excursions one can take from the larger, inhabited islands. Some of these properties even have their own yacht. The important things to consider when selecting a land-based option are: whether they offer scheduling of day trips, whether they have exploration tools and equipment for different activities (biking, snorkeling, paddleboarding, surfing), and which of these and other activities are guided.
The Galapagos is one of the top scuba diving destinations in the world, being that the United Nations has declared it a Biosphere Reserve and that CEDAM International named it “One of the seven underwater wonders of the world”. In the archipelago, only licensed, experienced divers with 25 logged dives or more can participate in this activity, (unless, as a rare exception, the licensed diver is evaluated and approved by an expert guide). There are two options; either live-aboard diving cruises with typical week-long itineraries, offering three dives per day, but no land visits, or day excursions, diving off a small yacht. For scuba aficionados, this destination is undoubtedly a must.
The Galapagos were declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in the late 70s. In the wake of this recognition, being a place that is so popular and beautiful, yet fragile and delicate requires some really intense conservation efforts. Environmental responsibility is enshrined in many of the people that live and work in the archipelago.
Given the vast amount of stakeholders, some with competing interests (fishing and tourism industries vs. conservation and environmental protection efforts), the decision-making process has not been an easy one in the islands. A law was passed in 1986 to control fishing and over-exploitation in the Galapagos, recognizing the waters in and around the archipelago as a vital Biosphere Reserve. The protection of the islands and oceans became the responsibility of the Galapagos National Park Service (GNP), which was established in 1959 and is currently celebrating its 60th year.
One thing to understand is that the Galapagos are not as heavily transited as you might think. Thanks to a limited number of vessels, hotels, and yearly visitors, the Galapagos National Park Service can more efficiently monitor and regulate travel and activity in the region. The regulations and participation of various operators in joint conservation efforts is a particularly good thing. As an example, the GNP recently relocated about 1400 marine iguanas from North Seymor to neighboring Santiago Island at the beginning of 2019. Until 2004, Santiago Island had been overrun by feral pigs, cats, and rodents. These herbivores are expected to help restore the island’s vegetation to what it once was.
Be sure to click here for more Galapagos Information.
Bonus Reason: Quito
Need an extra reason to visit the Galapagos? All flights to the archipelago are domestic and depart from either Guayaquil (airport code: GYE) or the capital city of Quito (UIO). In 2018, Quito celebrated its 40th anniversary as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it was recently selected by Condé Nast Traveler as one of the 50 Most Beautiful Cities in the World Its Historic Center is one of the most well preserved, attractive, and functioning cultural areas in all of Latin America. Gorgeous cobblestone plazas, elaborate gothic churches, balcony-lined houses, cultural museums, artisanal shops, cafés, restaurants, and neighborhood parks inspire visitors with a sense of excitement and nostalgia. In the heart of this city center is San Francisco Plaza, a historically important area filled with activity and flanked on one side by its namesake church and convent, and on another, by the recently transformed historic mansion that is now the Casa Gangotena Boutique Hotel. Whether traveling through on your way to or from the Galapagos, it is worth considering a quick stop in Quito.
With parents that worked for the U.S. Foreign Service up until he graduated from high school, Chris was raised to have the heart of a nomad throughout his life. He has resided in Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador throughout his years, and just recently spent the past four up in Canada finishing his Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy & English at the University of British Columbia. He is now devoted to writing about all things related to travel in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia.