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Despite being the smallest country in the Andean Highlands, Ecuador is one of the world's most bio-diverse destinations. Visitors will experience dramatic changes in altitude, scenery and temperature while journeying between Pacific Coast beaches, the sweltering rainforest, the ice-covered volcanoes surrounding Quito and the windswept highlands of the Andes Mountains. They will also encounter an astounding variety of birds, wildlife and vegetation in these contrasting climatic zones.
What's more, Ecuador's geographic environment has influenced the cultures and traditions of its people. Two mountain chains and over 30 volcanoes make up the Andean highlands, the country's backbone. Between the two chains lies the central valley, the Avenue of Volcanoes, at about 8,960 feet (2,800m) above sea level.
This valley, or sierra, is the heartland of cultural activity, punctuated by dozens of remote communities. It is also home to the bulk of the population. Larger towns like Saquisilí and Otavalo swell on market days, with villagers coming to sell their produce and handiwork in a vibrant, colourful, and festive atmosphere.
Additionally, the sierra contains most of the old and historically important cities, including the aforementioned Quito. The country itself is beautiful, with colonial architecture, magnificent, panoramic scenery and a welcoming people blending together magnificently.
One of the world's greatest treasures of natural history lies in the bewitching Galapagos Islands. Famed for its unique wildlife such as marine iguanas, giant tortoises, and colourful Sally Lightfoot crabs, the island chain is the highlight of any holiday in Ecuador.
As a travel destination, Ecuador is most famous for its ecological wealth. Indeed, the country's most notable tourist attraction is the Galapagos island chain, once the scientific playground of Charles Darwin. On this small archipelago of volcanic islands, weird and wonderful animals like the giant tortoise and marine iguana can be observed. Tourism on the Galapagos is strictly controlled to preserve the famous eco-system.
Other breathtaking natural wonders in Ecuador include the many volcanoes, particularly Cotopaxi, which is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world, and home to one of the few equatorial glaciers in the world. The Amazon rainforest attracts many adventurous travellers, with the town of Tena the most common launching point for jungle treks. Nature lovers will appreciate the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve as well. It lies in the Andean foothills.
Those wanting to experience the scenic Ecuadorian coastline should to head to the southern coast, where numerous picturesque beach resorts can be found. The most popular of these is the pretty town of Montanita.
The capital, Quito, is the transport hub of the country and attracts tourists in its own right, thanks to its colonial architecture, colourful markets, and Cotopaxi looming in the background. Cuenca is also a very attractive town and a hotspot on Ecuador's tourist circuit.
The Plaza de la Independencia has always been the heart of Quito. As the hub of the old centre, it is the best place to sit, enjoy a meal, and people-watch. The City Hall, the cathedral, the Archbishop's Palace and the Government's Palace are all located around the square. The cathedral is the oldest church in South America, and is one of the city's most impressive historical and architectural sites. Both the Government Palace and the cathedral were scenes of shocking murders. In 1875, President García Moreno was murdered by machete, and in 1877 the Bishop of Quito was poisoned during a Good Friday Mass. But despite this gory history, the Plaza Grande is now the happy, atmospheric heart of Quito and should be the first stop for travellers.
The Iglesia de San Francisco is a peaceful place, without the shady benches full of people and the business of Plaza de la Independencia. Inside, visitors will find chapels gilded in gold, splendid altars and many religious paintings and carvings produced by the Quito School. Its monastery holds some priceless examples of Spanish sculpture and art. It is one of the biggest religious compounds in South America, with seven courtyards and buildings stretching behind the church. These only become evident once the visitor has ventured through the stone doorway of the main entrance. The Iglesia de San Francisco is arguably Quito's greatest tourist attraction and a must-see for travellers in the city.
One of the few sights in Quito's New City is the round, glass-plated building of the Casa de la Cultura. It houses a theatre, a cinema, and two museums, the most impressive being the Museo del Banco Central. Ecuador's premier museum, it contains an astonishing assembly of religious art, Columbian ceramics and pre-Hispanic gold, and a huge archaeological repertoire. Of particular interest are the ceramics of the La Tolita society (600 BC to 400 AD) and the Gigantes de Bahía. On show too is the Sala de Oro (an exhibition filled with gold), and the Sala de Arte Colonial, which is packed with religious paintings and sculptures. English-speakers may find the information provided on exhibits limited, but the artefacts themselves will not disappoint.
Ecuador's geography has endowed the country with a variety of microclimates. The coast is hot all year, with a humid rainy season between December and May. In the mountains, climate depends on altitude, becoming cooler the higher travellers go. The Amazon region is hot, humid and wet, while the Galapagos Islands are dry with a steady year-round average temperature of 77ºF (25ºC).
The US Dollar (USD) is the official currency in Ecuador. It is recommended that travellers bring US dollar notes as other foreign currencies are difficult to exchange outside of Quito, Guayaquil, and Cuenca. Small denominations in good condition are the easiest to exchange outside of the main cities.
In the main centres, most currencies can be exchanged at banks and exchange houses (casas de cambio) at variable commission rates. ATMs are available in the cities, and major credit cards are accepted in tourist areas and large hotels, although a commission of six to eight percent is often charged.
Spanish is the official language, but many speak an Amerindian language called Quichua.
Electrical current is 120 volts, 60Hz. Two-pin, flat prong plugs are standard.
US nationals: US citizens must have a passport valid for six months beyond the date of their arrival in Ecuador. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days.
UK nationals: British citizens must have a passport valid for six months beyond the date of their arrival in Ecuador. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days, irrespective of the endorsement with regard to national status contained in the visitor's passport.
CA nationals: Canadian citizens must have a passport valid for six months beyond the date of their arrival in Ecuador. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days.
AU nationals: Australian citizens must have a passport valid for six months beyond the date of their arrival in Ecuador. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days.
ZA nationals: South African citizens must have a passport valid for six months beyond the date of their arrival in Ecuador. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days.
IR nationals: Irish citizens must have a passport valid for six months beyond the date of their arrival in Ecuador. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days.
NZ nationals: New Zealand citizens must have a passport valid for six months beyond the date of their arrival in Ecuador. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days.
Passports should be valid for at least six months beyond the date of arrival in Ecuador. All visitors should hold an onward or return ticket, and must demonstrate proof of sufficient funds for their stay in the country. Extensions are possible for travellers who do not need a visa to enter Ecuador. Those who are travelling to the Galapagos Islands need to register with the government prior to arrival on the following website: http://www.gobiernogalapagos.gob.ec/pre-registro-tct/. It is highly recommended that travellers' passports have at least six months validity remaining after the intended date of departure from their travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
A yellow fever certificate is required for those arriving from infected areas, and is recommended for everyone entering Ecuador, particularly for those travelling to the Amazon basin. Vaccinations are recommended for hepatitis A and hepatitis B. There is a high risk of malaria and dengue fever in areas below 5,000 feet (1,500m) in Ecuador. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of reported cases of dengue fever primarily in coastal and Amazon regions. The best prevention is to cover up and use mosquito repellent liberally throughout the day. High altitude can affect some people's health so visitors to Quito (6,500 feet/2,800m), for example, are advised to take it easy for the first few days. It is advisable to take seasickness tablets on a Galapagos boat cruise. Tap water should not be consumed; bottled water is available. Milk is unpasteurised so it is best to avoid dairy products. Medical facilities are often inadequate, especially outside of Quito, and comprehensive medical insurance is highly recommended.
A 10 percent service charge is usually added to good quality hotel and restaurant bills, but often the waitron does not receive this fee, so it is discretionary to add another five to 10 percent as a tip. Taxi drivers do not expect to be tipped but tour guides usually do.
Ecuador is generally a safe country to travel to but visitors should be vigilant with their belongings as most crime is opportunistic. Travellers are warned not to store belongings in the overhead lockers or under seats on public buses and trains.
Due to a risk of kidnapping and armed crime, travel to the northeastern areas bordering Colombia is not advisable, and travel to the northern provinces of Sucumbios and Orellana should be avoided. Travellers should also avoid hiking to Volcan Pichincha via Cruz Loma as violent gangs are known to operate in the wooded areas; a cable car provides access, but there have been several cases of armed robbery and rape reported in the area. Several incidents have also occurred along the hiking trail up Cerro Mandango near Vilcabamba, Loja, in which hikers have been robbed of all valuables by masked men.
Ecuador has many active volcanoes, which are rather poorly monitored. Eruptions have caused the evacuation of thousands of people, particularly in the Baños area.
There is an ongoing risk of disruption to travel due to social and political unrest; all public gatherings and demonstrations should be avoided - as they should be in all foreign countries.
Always ask permission to take photos of the local people. A tip is often requested for taking a photo. It is a legal requirement to carry identification at all times. Dress is more conservative and modest in the highlands compared to the coast. Politeness and good manners are essential for communication and a light handshake is the practiced form of greeting.
An essential aspect of conducting business in Ecuador is having a link with a reputable local partner. Business dealings are somewhat formal; dress is usually smart and conservative, punctuality is important and greetings are made with a handshake. Dress can be more casual in hotter regions such as Guayaquil. Business cards are usually exchanged and it is recommended to have some business cards, company brochures and presentations translated into Spanish. Note that business disputes that would in countries such as the United States be dealt with by civil litigation are often, under Ecuadorian law, viewed as criminal, and can lead to arrest and imprisonment. Although the official language is Spanish, English is widely spoken and understood in the business sector. Business hours are usually 8:30am to 4:30pm Monday to Friday, with some businesses closing during lunch.
The international access code for Ecuador is +593. Hotels, cafes and restaurants offering free wifi are widely available. As international roaming costs can be high, purchasing a local prepaid SIM card can be a cheaper option.
Travellers entering Ecuador do not have to pay customs duty on 400 cigarettes or 25 cigars or 500g tobacco; 3 litres of alcoholic beverages; perfume for personal use; and gifts and personal effects to the value of US$500.
Ministry of Tourism, Quito: +593 2 250 7559 or www.quito.com.ec
Embassy of Ecuador, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 234 7200.
Embassy of Ecuador, London, United Kingdom: +44 20 7584 1367.
Embassy of Ecuador, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 563 8206.
Embassy of Ecuador, Canberra, Australia (also responsible for New Zealand): +61 2 6286 4021.
Ecuadorian Embassy, Pretoria, South Africa, +27 12 346 1662
Ecuadorian Embassy, Dublin, Ireland, +353 1 280 5917
United States Embassy, Quito: +593 2 398 5000.
British Embassy, Quito: +593 2 397 2200.
Canadian Embassy, Quito (also responsible for Australia): +593 2 245 5499.
South African Honorary Consulate, Quito: +593 2 246 7219
Irish Honorary Consul, Ecuador: + 593 2 380 1345.
New Zealand Embassy, Santiago, Chile (also responsible for Ecuador): +56 2 2616 3000.
El Mitad del Mundo (The Middle of the World) is a purpose-built complex of museums and shops that was constructed to mark the equator, the line that gives the country its name. The 96-foot (30m) high Equator Monument is the focus of the square, topped by a brass sphere representing the world. A painted line stretches out on either side of the monument marking the equator that divides the world, and the complex into northern and southern hemispheres. A set of weighting scales also lie on the square and illustrate the fact that visitors lose a bit of weight of the equator, as they're subject to a lesser force of gravitational attraction than usual. An anthropological museum has interesting displays of Ecuador's indigenous populations and their customs, and there is a scenic lookout at the top as well as a planeterium. Buses leave regularly from Quito for El Mitad del Mundo. There is a small admission price for the complex.
Ecuador is famous for its colourful, indigenous markets, and the best known of these is the market at Otavalo. It dates back to pre-Incan times, when jungle products were brought up from the lowlands to be traded for highland goods. Every Saturday, visitors will find a wonderful sprawling mix of rich colour, smells, and the sounds of energetic bargaining, an essential part of trade and an art in itself. Spread over three plazas and the surrounding streets, thousands of local otavaleños in striking traditional dress sit among their wares, doing hard business with tourists and locals alike. The Plaza de los Ponchos is the main area for crafts like woollen blankets, bright ponchos and jerseys, colourful bags and woven tapestries. It is possible to buy almost anything from fresh fruit and rain sticks, to jewellery and dried lentils. The noisy animal market commences first thing in the morning. Located on the edge of town, locals visit it to buy and sell cows, pigs, horses and llamas, with much haggling over prices.
Parque Nacional Cotopaxi is Ecuador's most visited National Park, with one of the highest active volcanoes in the world at its centre. At 19,350ft (5,900m) above sea level, Volcán Cotopaxi offers excellent hiking and climbing opportunities along with a small museum, a llama herd and camping and picnicking facilities. There is also a good chance of spotting condors and deer. An overnight mountain hut on the snow line is available for those wishing to climb the volcano. The recommended months for climbing Volcán Cotopaxi are December through April. However, travellers should always pay close attention to any alerts or warnings issued by authorities regarding volcanic activity. Those not interested in climbing the volcano will find picturesque walking trails around the lake at the bottom of the mountain, and there is a restaurant nearby for refreshment.
The Spanish founded the charming city of Cuenca in 1557. Despite being Ecuador's third largest city, it is quaint and pretty, and a favourite for photographers, with its cobblestone streets and 16th-Century buildings. It is a good idea to spend a few days relaxing in this special place, where colourful Ecuadorian culture meets old-world colonial style. There are a number of museums and churches to see, as well as bustling plazas and markets that can be visited during a leisurely ramble around town. The nearby fortress of Ingapirca is a popular excursion. Located just outside Cuenca and in a town of the same name, the fortress' ruins constitute Ecuador's only major Inca site.
The small town of Banos is a holiday favourite for its hot springs. Framed by majestic mountains and volcanoes, it serves as a gateway to the Amazon rainforest. Situated on the slopes of the active Tungurahua volcano, Banos is also on constant alert for signs of activity from "The Black Giant". The town is popular with Ecuadorian and international travellers alike, as a place to relax in unspoilt, peaceful surroundings. The best known of Banos' therapeutic hot baths is the Piscina de La Virgen, which is next to a waterfall. For the traveller looking for more holiday action, there are numerous activities, including horse riding, hiking, and mountain biking. It is also possible to organise trips to the Oriente, the forests of the Amazon Basin, where travellers can see wildlife, visit indigenous communities deep in the jungle, and experience life in the isolated far reaches of the country. There are many bars and restaurants throughout the town, often with live folk music.
Banos is also home to Ecuador's most famous candy, taffy, which is made from sugarcane. Hanging from hooks in the doorframes of almost every shop, it is an integral part of the Banos landscape.
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