After our recent road trip through Ecuador’s highlands, we understood why World Travel Awards designated Quito as South America’s leading destination for 2013. In 2014, the capital city was again nominated for this award, along with nominations as a business travel destination. Additionally, National Geographic Traveler magazine named Quito as one of its top 20 destinations last year.
Founded in the 16th century on the ruins of an Inca city, Quito, some 9,000 feet above sea level, sprawls across a broad valley surrounded by volcanic peaks. Its Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has one of the greatest concentrations of religious architecture in the world. Excellent restaurants and historic boutique hotels, which were private homes in the 16th and 17th centuries, add to the appeal.
Beyond Quito, Ecuador has much more to offer: indigenous highland markets; the extraordinary wildlife of the Amazon region; lovely beaches on the Pacific coast; and, of course, the Galapagos Islands, 600 miles offshore.
Thirty-five miles north of Quito, Volcán Cayambe looms over rolling farmland. It’s Ecuador’s third highest peak, the highest point in the world through which the equator passes—and the coldest place in the world on the equator!
Cuenca is considered by many as the country’s most beautiful colonial city. The imposing domes and towers of the city’s Catedral de la Immaculado Concepción (also called the Nueva Catedral) overlook Cuenca’s largest plaza, Parque Calderón.
In the highland town of Gualaceo, these women, wearing traditional clothing, converse during a weekend religious festival. The town is known for its crafts, including ikat textiles woven using a pre-Columbian technique of tieing and dying threads.
Ecuador’s new Tren Crucero (cruise train) was recently nominated by World Travel Awards as the best luxury train in South America. The train runs 280 miles from Quito to the coastal town of Guayaquil and back, with intermediate stops along the way. The entire journey, from sea level to 11,800 feet, takes four days, three nights. (Those with limited time can sign up for a shorter trip.)
Passengers enjoy the outstanding scenery of the Avenue of the Volcanoes, where more than 10 volcanoes rise over 12,000 feet, and are introduced to the people and cultures of the highlands and the coast. Steam locomotives dating from the early 20th century run on two legs of the route. We found the service on the train exceptional.