Getting Oriented

Picture mainland Ecuador as a triangle on its side with three vertical stripes. The highland Andes—anchored by the capital, Quito—form the triangle's spine. To the east looms El Oriente, the country's contribution to the Amazon basin. To the west of the mountains lies the lowland coast. Far west, out in the Pacific Ocean, scatter the Galápagos Islands, the pearls of the nation's tourism, so popular among visitors that many barely realize Ecuador has a mainland. Don't make that oversight if you can help it.

Quito. Ecuador's fun, lively capital sits in the north central part of the country and is one of the continent's great repositories of colonial architecture. The city mixes new in with the old and offers a terrific selection of hotels, restaurants, shopping, and entertainment.

The Northern Highlands. The region north of Quito, typified by the charming town of Otavalo, forms the Ecuador of postcards. The typical visitor takes in this region's artisan markets, lakes, and indigenous culture as a day trip from the capital, but it's just as easy to base yourself out here instead.

The Central Highlands. The highlands south of Quito are Ecuador at its most majestic, a grand promenade through a high-altitude valley passing between rows of volcanoes, many still active. They form the perfect backdrop for the region's burgeoning outdoor-adventure tourism market.

Cuenca & the Southern Highlands. Think of the lovely, well-preserved colonial city of Cuenca as a smaller, more manageable version of Quito. It forms the hub for Ecuador's southern highlands, a region containing the country's best-known indigenous ruins.

El Oriente. Ecuador's share of the Amazon watershed forms one-third of the country's territory. Plan on shelling out a few extra bucks to get here, and expect rustic accommodation, although you'll be surprised at the level of comfort you can find out here in the wilderness.

Guayaquil & the Pacific Coast. The Andes seem a world behind when you descend on Ecuador's sultry coast. Guayaquil, the country's largest city and economic powerhouse, will be your gateway to a region known to Ecuadorans for its beaches—Rio it is not, but partake if you have time—and national parks.

The Galápagos Islands. For the typical visitor, Ecuador is the Galápagos (and vice-versa), some 70 islands 960 km (600 mi) off the coast. You'll likely take in just a handful during your visit, but that's opportunity enough to observe the amazing selection of wildlife found nowhere else.

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