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Beyond the Galapagos: Uncover Ecuador's Hidden Gems on Your Next Trip


| 6 mins read

Home to four geographic regions- coastal plains, the Andean highlands, the Great Amazon, and the world-famous Galapagos Islands, Ecuador has something to offer for all sorts of travellers- something that often goes unnoticed! Although known primarily for the Galapagos Islands, the country is rich with diverse landscapes, cultures, delectable cuisine, vibrant market scenes and historical experiences.

In this blog, we bring to you the six off-the-beaten-path experiences that will allow you to go beyond the usual online recommendations. Whether familiarising yourself with the locals of Agua Blanca or unwinding at the Papallacta Thermal Baths, each adventure will surely captivate you!

Take a Step Back in Time in Cuenca

A beautiful hidden gem in Ecuador, Cuenca is a city that especially satisfies history and art enthusiasts. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the city is renowned for its preserved colonial building, bearing Spanish and French influences, vibrant local market, rich cultural festivities and above all, observing the orthogonal town plan that has been existing for the last 400 years (approx.)! So when in Cuenca, explore its historic center, housing the New and Old Cathedral. Strolling through the historic center with your local guide will allow you to learn about the real stories of Ecuador and have healthy interactions with the locals. Additionally, you can check out Pumapungo Museum, Archeological Park (offering a glimpse into the city's pre-Columbian past), and Museum of Aboriginal Cultures (housing 3,000 years of history) and have a refreshing time at Calderon Park. 

Do you know Cuenca is the birthplace of the famous Panama hat? Despite its name, the Panama hat originated in Ecuador. Watching this long-standing tradition of weaving Panama hats will be a surreal experience. 

Cuenca City Street

Soak in the Andean Beauty at the Papallacta Hot Springs

Set perfectly in between the Andean peaks, the village of Papallacta has garnered much attention for its refreshing thermal baths. Interestingly, the pools here are naturally heated by the volcanic activity of the nearby Antisana Volcano. Pick one day of your trip, and you can drive from the nearest city of Quito, which will take just about an hour to reach here. Spend the whole day relaxing in the thermal baths (believed to have therapeutic properties). If you have time, you can visit the nearby Cayambe Coca Ecological Reserve, a perfect haven for birdwatching and is suitable for both short hikes and challenging adventures. What is more interesting is how the locals revere these hot springs. Historically, the water was used for medicinal and spiritual purposes, a practice that still continues and inspires tourists to respect Mother Nature for all her free givings. 

Antisana Volcano

Visit the Historic Site of the Wall of Tears

Also known as El Muro de las Lágrimas, the Wall of Tears is located on Isabela Island in the Galapagos Islands. Built between 1945 and 1959, the wall is a poignant reminder of the harsh chapter of Ecuador's history when prisoners had to carry heavy volcanic rocks from distant quarries, a process during which many lost their lives. Legend has it that during late afternoon, the cries of the prisoners can still be heard! Visiting the Wall of Tears is an emotional journey in itself, which allows one to look back to ensure that no man repeats history. Interestingly, the trail leading to the wall is a picturesque journey. One can expect to encounter giant tortoises, flamingos, and a variety of bird and wildlife species. 

Wall of Tears

Familiarise with the Indigenous Craft and Culture at the Otavalo Market

A visit to the Otavalo Market will surely leave a long-lasting impression on you as it is the perfect hub to witness cultural creation and exchanges. Locally, it is known as Plaza de Ponchos and is recognised as one of the most colourful indigenous markets in South America, with its origin dating back to Pre-Inca times. As you wander the market, you will see traditional clothing, Panama hats, musical instruments, jewellery, and many other textiles, offering you enough choices to pick the best souvenir. Interestingly, your local guide can help you unravel the musical pages of the town's history by observing the musical instruments sold in this open market. Moreover, the traditional clothing also gives a glimpse into the traditional motifs that have been thriving for generations. A trip to Otavalo will allow you to interact, meet warm people, and support the local communities that have been consistently trying to preserve their heritage and identity.

Otavalo Market

Enjoy Birdwatching in the Mystical Cloud Forests of Mindo

Mindo's cloud forest is one of the nature paradises that often go unnoticed. Apart from the lush greenery amidst the Ecuadorian Andes, Mindo is popular, especially for birdwatchers. It is home to around 500 species of birds, including the Andean Cock-of-the-rock and many species of hummingbirds. It is truly a serene experience to wake up to nature, amongst the pleasant chorus of birds, where you spent all day observing the bountiful beauty!

Apart from birdwatching, you can enjoy the canopy zip-lining experience to get a bird-eye view of the forest. Hiking opportunities are also available, and the Mindo Valley waterfall is also a must-visit. Fortunately, many guided tours start from Quito daily, and you can also join one to make the most of your trip. 

Andean Cock-of-the-rock in the Mindo Cloud Forest

Dive into History and Nature in Agua Blanca

Undoubtedly, one of the most immersive experiences you can have in Ecuador is a visit to Agua Blanca village, located in the Machalilla National Park. The place not only boasts sulfur lagoons but also represents one of South America's most ancient civilisations, the Manteño culture. At the archaeological site, you can learn about the Manteño people (who thrived in this region from 800 AD to the early Spanish conquest) by seeing the pottery, jewellery, and other relics housed in a museum, providing insight into the daily life of the older civilisation. Moving ahead, take a refreshing dip in the sulfur lagoons, which are believed to heal skin ailments. Additionally, since you are already within a national park, take advantage of exploring the rich flora and fauna of Machalilla National Park. 

Sulfur Pool in Agua Blanca

From the historical Wall of Tears and culturally rich Otavalo market to meeting the indigenous people of Agua Blanca and rejuvenation in Mindo Forest, planning a trip to Ecuador will suffice the various kinds of experiences you desire. Around the world, in this fast-paced modern world, only a few countries have successfully been able to preserve the raw beauty of the place, and Ecuador is definitely one of them.