Ecuador travel - Lonely Planet (2023)

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Top attractions

These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Ecuador.

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    León Dormido

    About an hour’s boat ride northeast of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is León Dormido (Kicker Rock), so named because of its resemblance to a sleeping lion. León Dormido is an imposing, vertical, sheer-walled tuff cone that has been eroded in half; smaller boats can sail between the two rocks. Because there’s no place to land, this site is usually seen by snorkelers, passing boats or from the top of Cerro de las Tijeretas outside of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, often to dramatic effect when the sun is setting. Day trips from Puerto Boquerizo Moreno here are around $80.

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    El Chato Tortoise Reserve

    South of Santa Rosa is El Chato Tortoise Reserve, where you can observe giant tortoises in the wild. When these virtually catatonic, prehistoric-looking beasts extend their accordion-like necks to feed, it’s an impressive sight. The reserve is also a good place to look for short-eared owls, Darwin’s finches, yellow warblers, Galápagos rails and paint-billed crakes (these last two are difficult to see in the long grass). The reserve is part of the national park and a guide is required.

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    Volcán Alcedo

    The summit of this volcano (1097m) is famous for its 7km-wide caldera and steaming fumaroles. Hundreds of giant tortoises can be seen here, especially from June to December, and juvenile hawks soar on thermal updrafts. The view is fantastic. Permits are required to hike this long, steep and waterless trail and to camp near the summit (two days required).

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    The first of its kind in the world, this museum uses augmented reality to showcase a permanent exhibition of 55 pre-Columbian artifacts. The ancient cultures of Ecuador’s Amazon and coastal regions are brought to life as visitors point smart phones or tablets at one of the relics, with historical information and three-dimensional images appearing directly on the devices.

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    Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús

    Capped by green-and-gold domes, La Compañía de Jesús is Quito’s most ornate church and a standout among the baroque splendors of the Old Town. Free guided tours in English or Spanish highlight the church’s unique features, including its Moorish elements, perfect symmetry (right down to the trompe l’oeil staircase at the rear), symbolic elements (bright-red walls are a reminder of Christ’s blood) and its syncretism (Ecuadorian plants and indigenous faces are hidden along the pillars).Construction on this marvelously gilded Jesuit church began in 1605 but wasn't completed for another 160 years; the main altarpiece alone took 20 years (former president Gabriel García Moreno is buried here). The made-in-the-USA organ is circa 1889. Check out the chiaroscuro-style series of paintings called the 16 Prophets by Nicolás Javier de Goríbar and the large canvas Hell and Final Judgement from 1879 – it's still a mystery what happened to the original, painted by Hermano Hernando de la Cruz in 1620. Quiteños proudly call it the most beautiful church in the country, and it’s easy to see why.

  • See

    Museo del Banco Central ‘Pumapungo’

    One of Ecuador's most significant museums, Pumapungo houses great modern art downstairs, but the highlight is on the 2nd floor. Here begins a comprehensive voyage through Ecuador's diverse indigenous cultures, with colorfully animated dioramas and reconstructions of typical houses of Afro-Ecuadorians from Esmeraldas province, the cowboy-like montubios (coastal farmers) of the western lowlands, several rainforest groups and all major highland groups.The finale features rare and eerie tzantzas (shrunken heads) from the Shuar culture of the southern Oriente. The Shuar supposedly shrunk the heads of their enemies to harness their spirit for strength in future battles. Included in your visit is the Archaeological Park out back, where you can walk through the extensive ruins of buildings believed to be part of the old Incan city of Tomebamba. Unfortunately, the Spanish conquistadors carted off most of the stone to build Cuenca, so there’s not much left – but the park is good for a stroll, with perhaps a stop at the snack bar at the bottom.

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    For spectacular views over Quito’s mountainous landscape, hop aboard this sky tram, one of the world's highest aerial lifts, that takes passengers on a 2.5km ride (10 minutes) up the flanks of Volcán Pichincha to the top of Cruz Loma. Once you’re at the top (a mere 4100m), you can hike to the summit of Rucu Pichincha (4680m), a 4km (five-hour) round-trip – ask about the safety situation before attempting the climb and bring warm clothes.Don’t attempt the hike to Rucu Pichincha until you’ve acclimatized in Quito for a couple of days. You can go alone or with a qualified guide. You can also hire horses ($15 per hour), which are about 500m from the upper station (follow signs to ‘paseos a caballo’). Visit the TelefériQo, and certainly begin the Rucu Pichincha hike, in the morning, when the views here are best; the clouds usually roll in by noon. A taxi here costs about $5 from Mariscal Sucre. Vulqano Park, a children’s amusement park, is at the base station. The ticket price covers you out and back to the base station.

  • See

    Casa Museo Guayasamín

    In the former home of the legendary painter Oswaldo Guayasamín (1919–99), this wonderful museum houses the most complete collection of the artist's work. Guayasamín was also an avid collector, and the museum displays his outstanding collection of pre-Columbian ceramic, bone and metal pieces. Admission includes entry to the Capilla del Hombre gallery.The pieces are arranged by theme – bowls, fertility figurines, burial masks etc; in the geometric designs and muted color schemes you can see the influence on Guayasamín’s work. The museum also houses Guayasamín’s collection of religious art, including works by highly skilled indigenous artists from the Escuela Quiteña; there’s even a collection of bloody crucifixes (although Guayasamín was agnostic, he incorporated tortured, Christ-like images in his own work). Guayasamín is buried alongside his friend, the writer Jorge Enrique Adoum, under a pine tree near the house.

  • See

    Capilla del Hombre

    One of the most important works of art in South America, Ecuadorian artist Oswaldo Guayasamín’s Capilla del Hombre stands next to the Casa Museo Guayasamín. The fruit of Guayasamín’s greatest vision, this giant monument-cum-museum is a tribute to humankind, to the suffering of Latin America’s indigenous poor and to the undying hope for something better. It’s a moving place and tours (in English, French and Spanish, included in the price) are highly recommended. Admission includes entrance to the Casa Museo.Guayasamín conceived the idea in 1985 but passed away in 1999 before work was completed. The building was finished three years later, in 2002.

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