When most people think about planning a trip to Ecuador, they imagine visiting either the big cities - like Quito, the capital - or the luxurious Galapagos Islands. But in between, there's an array of travel opportunities that often get overlooked. Bordered by Colombia, Peru and the Pacific Ocean, the Republic of Ecuador is divided into three distinctly different landscapes: the coast, the Andes Mountains and the Amazon Rainforest.
You can soak in all of the nation's famed beach life without shelling out big bucks for the Galapagos. Close to Manta, a port city in the Manabi Province, you can set out on Isla Corazon (Heart Island) mangrove tours and explore the heritage of more rural villages. A few hours' drive brings you to Alandaluz Hosteria, an eco-lodge with pools and a private beach (www.alandaluzhosteria .com). Further south in Santa Elena, Salinas is nicknamed "Little Miami" for its fun-in-the-sun reputation. Nearby, Los Frailes is considered one of the country's most beautiful beaches.
One major highlight is the Middle of the World, at the line of the equator in Pinchincha Province. You can learn about the physics and history of this intriguing geographical spot at its present, GPS-verified location - or at the site of the original monument, approximately 240 meters south. Don't miss El Crater, a restaurant and hotel located in Mirador del Puluagua on the edge of a large, scenic volcanic crater. With actual clouds wafting past at eye-level, the quirky-yet-upscale venue offers an exquisite sense of atmosphere (www.elcrater.com).
You can make an entire trip out of a jaunt to the Amazon. The rainforest offers a one-of-a-kind getaway where you can turn off your electronics, explore nature and escape from the world. Choose from eco-friendly retreats like the Napo Wildlife Center, where packages averaging four days include lodging, meals and activities. Bilingual guides lead hikes, bird-watching and canoe trips (www.napowildlifecenter.com).
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In the middle of the three regions, Quito is an excellent layover for a
day of rest and cultural intake. With stunning churches, museums,
nightlife and plenty of shopping, the nation's capital offers more
traditional urban tourism fare. Worth the steep drive through the heart
of the city's colonial center, El Ventanal restaurant offers upscale
dining with breathtaking panoramic views (www.elventanal.ec). Our advice: Don't skip dessert.
Ecuador is easy
English is commonly spoken in major areas
Ecuador uses American dollars as currency
It's on EST, except during Daylight Saving Time
Electric outlets take U.S. plugs without conversion
The flight is less than seven hours from NYC