Places To See
Parque Nacional Cotopaxi
The centerpiece of Ecuador's most popular national park is the snowcapped and downright picture-perfect Volcán Cotopaxi. At 5897m (19,347ft), it's Ecuador's second-highest peak. Around the volcano, you'll find outstanding hiking opportunities and wildlife such as the Andean condor, white-tailed deer, little red brocket deer and wily colpeo (Andean fox).
Within the 33,393 hectares (82,516 acres) of national park, there are a handful of fabulous old haciendas offering everything from horseback riding to guided climbs of Cotopaxi itself. The park also offers a good look at the páramo (Andean grassland) and the views everywhere are sublime.
Keep an eye out for the rare Andean spectacled bear which lives on the remote and infrequently visited eastern slopes of the park.
Part of the Galápagos Islands, Isla Bartolomé is a remote archipelago that provides the wildlife experience of a lifetime - meet sea lions, red Sally Lightfoot crabs, marine turtles, mockingbirds and Galápagos doves. Hike up the volcanic cone and take in spectacular views of the islands, or slap on a snorkel and swim with the speedy resident penguins.
Quito's newest attraction - and a mind-boggling one at that - is the telefériQo, a multimillion-dollar sky tram that takes passengers on a hair-raising, 2.5km (1.5mi) ride up the flanks of Volcán Pichincha to the top of Cruz Loma. Once you're at the top (a mere 4100m/13,451ft), you can hike to the summit of Rucu Pichincha (4700m/15,420ft).
The telefériQo complex is an eyesore of overpriced restaurants, video arcades, a go-cart track, souvenir shops, a dance club and even a theme park. While merry-go-rounds are undeniably fun at high altitudes, the real reason to come up here is for the views and the walking.
Before the telefériQo went in, climbing Rucu Pichincha was dangerous due to armed robberies. Unfortunately, that danger has returned, with travelers reporting several such attacks recently along the main trail. We're hoping that these attacks will cease with increased security measures, but it's best to check with South American Explorers for an update on the situation before heading out.
When to go?
Generally speaking, Ecuador has two seasons, wet and dry, but local weather patterns vary greatly depending on geography.
In the highlands, the dry season is between June and September and around Christmas, but even the wet season isn't particularly rainy. The central valley is spring-like all year, with temperatures no higher than 24°C (66°F). The Oriente experiences rain year-round; July and August are the wettest months, September through December the driest. Canoe travel is best in the wet season, when streams are high, while trekking is best done in the dry.
On the coast, the wet season (roughly January to May) sees sunny days with daily afternoon downpours, but it's the best beach weather. June through August sees gringo vacationers descend.
The mainland coastal areas and the Galápagos Islands are sweltering and wet between January and April. Despite the rain, this season has the most sun and is when Ecuadorians flock to the beach.
In the Galápagos, the wildlife frolics year-round but you'll find January to April the best time for snorkeling. If you're prone to seasickness, avoid the rough-sea months between July and October.
The high seasons are mid-December to January and June to August - accommodation rates are highest during these months, and reservations are advised.
El Niño hits hard about one winter every decade, playing havoc with road and rail connections.
Every city, town and village in Ecuador has local festivals, which are celebrated with a generous dose of fireworks, alcohol, music and dancing. Some of the biggest include the Good Friday processions in Quito, Corpus Christi in Pujilí or Salasaca, and Fiesta del Yamor in Otavalo.
Travel Visa Overview
Most travelers entering Ecuador as tourists, including citizens of Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the EU, Canada and the USA, do not require visas. Upon entry, they will be issued a T-3 embarkation card valid for 90 days. Sixty-day stamps are rarely given, but double-check if you're going to be in the country for a while. Residents of most Central American and some Asian countries require visas.
All travelers entering as diplomats, students, laborers, religious workers, businesspeople, volunteers and cultural-exchange visitors require nonimmigrant visas. Various immigrant visas are also available.
American-style plug with two parallel flat blades above a circular grounding pin
Japanese-style plug with two parallel flat blades
Unlike the malaria mosquito, the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which transmits the dengue virus, is most active during the day, and is found mainly in urban areas, in and around human dwellings.
Signs and symptoms of dengue fever include a sudden onset of high fever, headache, joint and muscle pains, nausea and vomiting. A rash of small red spots sometimes appears three to four days after the onset of fever. Severe complications do sometimes occur.
You should seek medical attention as soon as possible if you think you may be infected. A blood test can indicate the possibility of the fever. There is no specific treatment. Aspirin should be avoided, as it increases the risk of hemorrhaging. There is no vaccine against dengue fever.
Several different viruses cause hepatitis; they differ in the way that they are transmitted. The symptoms in all forms of the illness include fever, chills, headache, fatigue, feelings of weakness and aches and pains, followed by loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, light-colored feces, jaundiced (yellow) skin and yellowing of the whites of the eyes.
There are six known types of viral hepatitis: A, B, C, D, E and G. G is not dangerous. A and E are passed on by the fecal-oral route of transmission; there is a vaccine. Seek medical advice, but there is not much you can do apart from resting, drinking lots of fluids, eating lightly and avoiding fatty foods. A and E cause an acute illness, but you will recover fully from it.
B and D are passed on via blood, saliva, semen and vaginal fluids. They can be passed on by close contact, sexual contact, and blood-to-blood contact. The symptoms of hepatitis B may be more severe than type A and the disease can lead to long-term problems such as chronic liver damage, liver cancer or a long-term carrier state. There is a vaccine.
Hepatitis C is only passed on from blood-to-blood contact. There is no vaccine.
This serious and potentially fatal disease is spread by mosquito bites. If you are traveling in endemic areas it is extremely important to avoid mosquito bites and to take tablets to prevent this disease. Symptoms range from fever, chills and sweating, headache, diarrhea and abdominal pains to a vague feeling of ill-health. Seek medical help immediately if malaria is suspected. Without treatment malaria can rapidly become more serious and can be fatal.
If medical care is not available, malaria tablets can be used for treatment. You should seek medical advice, before you travel, on the right medication and dosage for you.
If you do contract malaria, be sure to be re-tested for malaria once you return home as you can harbor malaria parasites in your body even if you are symptom-free.
Travelers are advised to prevent mosquito bites at all times. The main messages are: wear light-colored clothing; wear long trousers and long-sleeved shirts; use mosquito repellents containing the compound DEET on exposed areas (prolonged overuse of DEET may be harmful, especially to children, but its use is considered preferable to being bitten by disease-transmitting mosquitoes); avoid perfumes and aftershave. Use a mosquito net impregnated with mosquito repellent (permethrin) - it may be worth taking your own.
Also known as enteric fever, typhoid is transmitted via food and water, and symptomless carriers, especially when they're working as food handlers, are an important source of infection. Typhoid is caused by a type of salmonella bacteria, Salmonella typhi. Paratyphoid is a similar but milder disease.
The symptoms are variable, but you almost always get a fever and headache to start with, which initially feels very similar to flu, with aches and pains, loss of appetite and general malaise. Typhoid may be confused with malaria. The fever gradually rises during a week. Characteristically your pulse is relatively slow for someone with a fever. Other symptoms you may have are constipation or diarrhea and stomach pains.
You may feel worse in the second week, with a constant fever and sometimes a red skin rash. Other symptoms you may have are a severe headache, sore throat and jaundice. Serious complications occur in about one in 10 cases, including, most commonly, damage to the gut wall with subsequent leakage of the gut contents into the abdominal cavity.
Seek medical help for any fever (38°C/100°F and higher) that does not improve after 48 hours. Typhoid is a serious disease and is not something you should consider self-treating.
Re-hydration therapy is important if diarrhea has been a feature of the illness, but antibiotics are the mainstay of treatment.
This is a fatal viral infection. Many animals can be infected (such as dogs, cats, bats and monkeys) and it's their saliva that is infectious. Any bite, scratch or even lick from a warm-blooded, furry animal should be cleaned immediately and thoroughly. Scrub with soap and running water, and then apply alcohol or iodine solution.
Medical help should be sought promptly to receive a course of injections to prevent the onset of symptoms and death.
Vaccination against this serious bacterial disease is very effective, so you don't need to worry if you've been properly immunized against it. It mainly affects children and causes a cold-like illness that is associated with a severe sore throat. A thick white membrane forms at the back of the throat which can suffocate you, but what makes this a really nasty disease is that the diphtheria bug produces a very powerful poison which can cause paralysis and affect the heart. Otherwise healthy people can carry the bug in their throats, and it's transmitted by sneezing and coughing. It can also cause a skin ulcer known as a veldt sore. Vaccination protects against this form too. Treatment is with penicillin and a diphtheria antitoxin, if necessary.
There are only two real seasons in Ecuador - the rainy season and the dry season - but there are significant variations among the geographical regions, and temperature is often a factor of altitude. Even during the rainy season, most days are sunny until the afternoon.
Coastal Ecuador is cloudy most of the time but enjoys daily highs averaging around 30°C (86°F) year-round, and a short but quite damp wet season between January and April. The highland dry season is between June and the end of September. In the Oriente, it rains most months - August and December to March are usually the driest. The Galápagos Islands are unusually dry for their equatorial position. The official dry season, between June and December, is also cool and often misty.
History and Culture
Pre-20th Century History
The history of pre-Inca Ecuador is lost in a misty tangle of time and legend - the earliest historical details date back only as far as the 11th century AD.
It is commonly believed that Asian nomads reached the South American continent around 12,000 BC. The Valdivia were Ecuador's first permanent sedentary culture. They developed along the Santa Elena peninsula from nearly 6000 years ago. The Chorrera appeared during the Formative Period (4000-300 BC) and were the most widespread and influential group during this time. Along with the Machalilla culture, they are known for their practice of skull deformation. As a form of status, they used stones to slowly elongate and flatten their craniums.
Around 600 BC, societies became more stratified; they were ruled by an elite caste of shamans and merchants who conducted long-distance trade. By AD 800, cultures had become integrated into larger, more hierarchical societies including the Manteños, Huancavilcas and Caras on the coast; the Quitus in the northern highlands; the Puruhá in the central highlands; and the Cañari around present-day Cuenca.
Centuries of tribal expansion, warfare and alliances resulted in the relatively stable Duchicela lineage, which ruled more or less peacefully for about 150 years until the arrival of the Incas around AD 1450.
Despite fierce opposition, the conquering Inca soon held the region, helped by strong leadership and intermarriage policies. War over the inheritance of the new Inca kingdom weakened and divided the region on the eve of the arrival of Spanish invaders.
The first Spaniards landed in northern Ecuador in 1526. Pizarro reached the country in 1532 and spread terror among the indigenous people thanks to his conquistadors' horses, armor and weaponry. The Incan leader, Atahualpa, was ambushed, held for ransom, 'tried' and executed, and the Incan empire was effectively demolished. Quito held out for two years but was eventually razed by Atahualpa's general, Rumiñahui, who preferred it to be destroyed rather than taken over intact by invading Spaniards. Quito was refounded in December 1534. Today, only one intact Incan site remains in Ecuador - Ingapirca, to the north of Cuenca.
There were no major uprisings by indigenous Ecuadorians, though life was abysmal under Spanish rule. Spain ruled the colony from Lima, Peru, until 1739, when it was transferred to the viceroyalty of Colombia. At this time, Ecuador was largely rural and conservative, with large estates of introduced cattle and bananas farmed by forced labor.
As a Creole middle class began to emerge, there were several attempts to liberate Ecuador from Spanish rule. Independence was finally achieved under Simón Bolívar in 1822, and full constitutional sovereignty gained in 1830. The country's internal history has since been marked by fierce rivalry and occasional open warfare between the church-backed conservatives, based in Quito, and the liberals and socialists of Guayaquil.
Over the last 100 years, assassinations and political instability have invoked increasing military intervention. Consequently, there have been more periods of military rule than of civilian.
In 1941, neighboring Peru invaded Ecuador and seized much of the country's Amazonian area. The 'new' border between the two countries - initially agreed upon and ratified by the 1942 Rio de Janeiro treaty - was finally recognized by both countries in a 1998 treaty. The squabbling ultimately died down because both countries were eager to impress potential foreign investors.
Until the 1970s, Ecuador was the archetypal 'banana republic'. However, bananas ceased being Ecuador's sole export after the discovery of oil in the Oriente at the end of the 1960s. Ecuador soon began borrowing money in the belief that oil profits would enable it to pay its foreign debts. In the '80s, however, there was a sharp decline in Ecuador's oil exports, world oil prices slumped and an earthquake wiped out a chunk of the oil pipeline. Ecuador still relies on oil as its economic mainstay, but reserves are not as large as previously hoped.
Life in Ecuador remained relatively peaceful until the end of the millennium. In an attempt to stop the decline of the Ecuadorian sucre, president Jamil Mahuad announced that he would 'dollarize' the economy, replacing sucres with US dollars at a rate of 25,000 sucres per dollar. Thousands of non-violent protestors, including indigenous leaders denouncing neo-liberal economic policies, subsequently occupied government buildings in Quito and forced his resignation.
Mahuad's vice-president, Guastavo Noboa, took office on January 22, 2000. Noboa was presented as one of the few honest politicians in a country where political corruption is the norm, even though his political experience was minimal. He vowed to eliminate political corruption, but continued apace with dubious International Monetary Fund (IMF) economic policies; he also went ahead with dollarization.
President Noboa was succeeded in 2002 by former coup-leader Lucio Gutiérrez - his populist agenda and promises to end government corruption won him the crucial electoral support of Ecuador's indigenous population. But shortly after taking office, Gutiérrez backed down on his promises and implemented IMF austerity measures to finance the country's massive debt. If that wasn't enough to turn the population against him, Gutiérrez tossed out almost the entire supreme court. Not surprisingly, protests erupted in the capital and Congress finally voted to throw Gutiérrez out, replacing him with vice president Alfredo Palacios. Palacios held on tightly to the reins until the October 2006 election. A conclusive winner could not be determined, so a runoff election was held the following month - with Rafael Correa finally emerging victorious. Since taking the reins, he's focused on social welfare. One of his biggest targets is the oil industry: he's called for increased taxes on oil revenue to be spent on the Ecuadorian poor, and has accused foreign oil companies operating in Ecuador of failing to meet current environmental regulations.
In a nationwide referendum in 2008, Ecuadorians vote to change the constitution. The new document expands the powers of the president while increasing spending on social welfare and enshrining rights for indigenous people and the environment.