Ecuador/Galapagos

Essentials

Capital: Quito

Size: 272,045 km² (Ecuador)

Population: 11.7m

Currency: US dollar

Language: Spanish

Visas: Not required for UK nationals.

Food: Cuisine varies with each region. Seafood is very good, especially on the coast – ceviche de pescado for instance. Andean dishes are based around maize and meat. Try empanadas de morocho (ground corn shell filled with meat).

Festivals: February: Fiesta de las Frutas y las Flores, in Ambato, a carnival with parades, festivities and bullfights. December 6: Dia de Quito is celebrated throughout the week. The festival commemorates the founding of the city with elaborate parades, bullfights, performances and music in the streets.

The phrase 'small is beautiful' could have been coined specifically with Ecuador in mind. By South American standards it is tiny, dwarfed by its neighbours Colombia and Peru. But it is this relative compactness that is one of its main attractions. Here, you can watch dawn break over the jungle canopy, have lunch high in the Andean mountains, then watch the sun slip into the Pacific Ocean - all in the same day.

The capital city, Quito, is the perfect base from which to explore. Although it stands a mere 23km south of the equator, Quito's mountain setting means it enjoys a pleasant, spring-like climate all year round. The city has enough to satisfy the culture vulture and hedonistic night owl, and you don't have to be an architecture buff to appreciate its elegant and beautifully preserved colonial heart, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

South of Quito is some of the best mountain scenery in Ecuador. The early 19th-century explorer Alexander von Humboldt dubbed this part of the country the ‘Avenue of the Volcanoes'. An impressive roll call of towering peaks lines the route south: Cotopaxi, Chimborazo and Tungurahua, to name a few. The area attracts trekkers and climbers, while the less active can browse through the many colourful Indian markets and colonial towns that nestle among the high volcanic cones.

On the western side of the Andes lies Ecuador's coast, so different in atmosphere from the highlands that you could be in another country. If your idea of a good time is to lie on a beach all day soaking up rays and partying into the small hours of the morning, then Ecuador's more popular beach resorts are for you. Those who prefer their activity during daylight hours can swim, surf, scuba dive or watch humpback whales getting it together in the warm waters off the shores of Manabí province.

Beautiful woven textiles are produced throughout the northern highlands, often using techniques unchanged for centuries. A few hours north of Quito, the market town of Otavalo is one of Ecuador's main weaving centres.

No visit to Ecuador would be complete without venturing into its steamy jungles. Only a few hours away from Quito by bus, the eastern slopes of the Andes give way to a vast green carpet stretching into the horizon, and home to all manner of strange and exotic flora and fauna.

A trip to the Galapagos is a unique and unforgettable experience. 1,000km west of mainland Ecuador, the islands are world-renowned for their fearless wildlife but no amount of hype can prepare the visitor for such close encounters. Here, you can snorkel with penguins and sea lions, watch giant, 200kg tortoises lumbering through cactus forest, go gooey-eyed over your first glimpse of a seal pup and enjoy the courtship display of the blue-footed booby and frigatebird, all in startling close-up.


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Getting there