In 2008 the Ecuadorian government recognised the right for nature to grow and flourish, for humans to petition or protest on behalf of nature, and for the government to protect nature. Although this noble act hasn’t been followed perfectly in preceding and subsequent years (oil exploration is still an important part of Ecuador’s economy), it is a reflection of the exceptional natural wonder of this country.
Bears with spectacles, sharks with hammers
Head up into Ecuador’s cloud forests and you may, if you’re lucky, encounter a spectacled bear. When I worked in Ecuador’s cloud forests near the Colombian border in 2000 I sadly never saw these rare bears, although there was always plenty of evidence of their presence, mainly in the form of smashed frailejones up on the Páramo.
Having worked in the 3100- t0 3600m-high Páramo, I then moved down to the Amazon rainforest, where there’s more than double the number of bird species as there are in North America. Here there are also uncontacted indigenous tribes, as well as forests teeming with wildlife.
I worked near the village of Misahuallí and returned 20 years later to see if the Jatun Sacha project was still succeeding in holding back developers and oil companies. Thankfully it is, which means you can still experience this intact natural wonderland.
The 200,000 km2 marine miracle
From highlands to tropical lands to under the sea, which is the best place from which to enjoy the Galapagos islands. Ecuador’s government recently announced a 60,000 km2 expansion to the marine reserve. You’ll probably be only to see a tiny snapshot of this, but what a snapshot it will be.
The very first time I put my head under the water, on my very first trip to the Galapagos, there beneath me was a hammerhead shark. I looked up and managed to squeak my disbelief to the guide, who just smiled knowingly back at me.
Everything you have heard about the Galapagos being an exceptional place for wildlife spotting is true. Very little effort is required to see turtles, seals, marine iguana, sharks, rays, and seahorses. On land and in the air are vast numbers of frigate birds, boobies, lizards, tortoises, crabs, penguins and finches.
A concentration of wonders
Ecuador is roughly the same size as the UK, or Uttar Pradesh, or Wyoming, yet it packs in the lofty forests and plains of the Páramo, 15 volcanoes over 4,000 metres high, hot springs, thick Amazon rainforest, ancient cities will well-preserved colonial centres, fascinating indigenous markets, beautiful tropical beaches, and Incan ruins. And that’s just the mainland.
Take a bus through Ecuador and you’ll be treated to one of the most spectacular shows on Earth. My favourite routes are through the Avenue of Volcanoes (no further description necessary), from Quito to Tena (stopping at the colourful Otavalo Market), and from Quito to Baños via Misahuallí – if you can keep your eyes open along the precipitous roads then you’ll see vast hills covered in rainforest, raging rivers and numerous waterfalls.
If you’ve the money then the Tren Crucero offers views of this stupendous country from the luxury of an opulent train (sadly they no longer allow you to ride the roof along the switchbacks of the Devil’s Nose section). But it’s on the plentiful buses where you meet Ecuadoreans and where I’ve enjoyed long conversations. Such friendly, welcoming people.
So, this is a country with natural wonders and a transport system which, if at times may seem chaotic, also allows you to travel everywhere on a tiny budget. Although it could do better at preserving the environment (see below the change in the landscape along the Napo River since 1984 – Jatun Sacha takes up the bottom-left quarter and just to the right of centre an airport appears), there’s also an appreciation of the value of nature. It may not be a big country, but it sure does pack an awful lot in.
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The best value flights go to either the capital, Quito, or to Ecuador’s largest city Guayaquil