Of the Latin American hot spots, Ecuador is often rushed through as a pit stop on the way to the Galapagos Islands (if not skipped entirely). So when the opportunity to spend a week there presented itself, I wasn't sure what to expect, but I was intrigued.
I have never been to a country with such geographical diversity. From the old town of Quito surrounded by rolling hills, to a cloud forest in the Valley of the Andes, a lake within a volcanic crater, and on to the Amazon Rain Forest, Ecuador's variety of landscape is stunning.
Casa Gangotena, Quito's premier boutique hotel, is tucked away on a narrow cobblestone street in Old Town, surrounded by tall, whitewashed walls.
Entering through the large iron gate, it felt like walking into another world, a perfectly manicured courtyard rose garden on the other side.
Past the garden, lies a large atrium and in one corner of the lobby, a small staircase leading up to (my personal favorite) the mahogany bar. Dark, wood-paneled walls and leather booths make it the perfect spot for a nightcap after a long day of exploring. The guest rooms are just as gorgeous with 12 foot tall ceilings, marble baths, and luxury bedding. Staying here is a splurge I highly recommend.
We headed down to the historic Old Town, founded nearly 500 years ago in 1534 on our first day in Ecuador. The state of preservation of Old Town prompted UNESCO to make it their first World Heritage site in 1978. We started our exploration in Plaza Grande and Plaza de la Independencia in the heart of the city. Flanked by Municipio de Quito, Palace Hidalgo, Palacio de Carondelet, and Metropolitan Cathedral, it's the perfect place to spend a few hours wandering and soaking in the rich cultural history.
Once inside the Cathedral, access the roof by crawling up through the tiny bell tower. Looking down on Quito surrounded by lush, green rolling hills, the view is spectacular!
At Basilica Del Voto Nationa, we had an opportunity to view the city once more from the sky. We navigated wooden beams in the attic to reach the spiral staircase and climbed to the very top of the clock towers. Unlike most old churches adorned with gargoyles, this one has turtles and iguanas – a perfect complement to Ecuador's tropical climate.
We ended the day on the "Telerifico", a gondola ride which takes you to the top of Cruz Loma, adjacent to the Pichincha volcanos. It is the highest arial lift in South America. Seeing the sun set over the city from this vantage point, is nothing short of breathtaking.
Our next stop was Mindo– truly one of Ecuador's hidden gems. Located in a valley in the depths of the Andes Mountains, Mindo's "cloud forest" was a welcome reprieve from our busy day on the streets of Quito. We had a room booked at Las Terrazas de Dana Lodge, a small, eco-lodge featuring private bungalows with large decks and amazing views of the cloud forest. Pro tip: have the hotel staff fill up your bathtub while you're out at dinner - it takes quite some time for your tub to fill up - it will be steaming hot and ready when you return for the night!
The following day, we were in for an adventure, and Mindo delivered with an incredible zip-lining experience. Zooming through treetops (over 11 lines in a row), the guide convinced me to go upside down, hanging from my knees. It was scary but exhilarating to say the least.
Next we headed to Nambilla Cascadas for a waterfall hike and bird watching. Mindo is known to have more than 500 species of birds recorded. This equates to 16% of the world's bird species, extraordinary for such a small country!
Also know for their chocolate, we took an evening chocolate-making tour in Mindo before our dinner at El Quetzal. Roasting the cocoa beans over a large open fire, the guide and his son also performed a traditional drum chant. It was interesting to see how chocolate was once made, though it tasted nothing like the rich milk chocolate we find in stores today.
Day three started with an enormous breakfast of fruit, pancakes, coffee, and fresh OJ on the deck of our bungalow. One of the most gorgeous views I’ve seen. We didn't have much time to savor it, though, as we had a 7.5 hour drive ahead of us, stopping at Quilotoa Lagoon, on our way to Banos.
Quilotoa is actually a lake which has formed in the crater of a volcano in the Ecuadorian Andes and one of the most photographed spots in Ecuador. We stopped by long enough to walk down to the shores, take our fill of photos, and enjoy a donkey ride back to the top.
It was dark by the time we made it to Banos de Agua Santa. Banos is easily the most beautiful city we visited. Nestled at the base of the mountains and the entrance to the rainforest, this sprawling oasis is often known as the Gateway to the Amazon. We arrived at dark and checked into the Luna Runtun Adventure Resort and Spa. Before heading off to bed, we decided to enjoy a soak in their hot tubs, perched on a cliff overlooking the city. I highly recommend Luna Runtun. Not only is it gorgeous, it is a great one stop shop; scheduling all your activities and tours for you. They made it very easy for us to see the best of the city and surrounding area in the two days.
We woke early the next morning to get started on the day: a guided tour of the stunning Pailon del Diablo waterfall. Following a path of swinging plank bridges and stone staircases, we hiked under the falls, getting wet from the spray and taking in the magnificent rainbows created by the refraction of the sunlight.
From there, we stopped by the side of the road to jump on the longest zip-line in Ecuador – over 1,000 meters! – before heading to our next stop at the Extreme Swings of Ecuador.
The first (more modern) swing, soars over a cliff more than 60 feet into the air, overlooking the town of Banos. Even though I was strapped in with seatbelts, it was absolutely terrifying but worth every moment. The second (albeit better known) swing, Casa del Arbol, was built to keep watch over the area's volcano, which has been active since 1996. Known as “The Swing at the Edge of the World,” it lives up to its’ name!
We continued the adventure the fifth day of our trip with a canyoning excursion. "Canyoning" consists of donning full wetsuits and non-slip sneakers as you rappel down the middle of a waterfall. A great workout and quite refreshing as your blasted by the fresh water from the surrounding mountains. After our day trip, we enjoyed a farm-to-table meal in the garden at Luna Runtun before heading into the city for the natural hot thermal baths in Banos. The baths are extremely busy during the day, so if you’re able, stop by at night after the crowds have thinned.
We said goodbye to Banos the next day and headed back to Quito to rest, relax, and rejuvenate before our flight home. This time, we opted to stay at The Mansion del Angel, a former 19th century mansion transformed into a boutique hotel. With its four poster beds, extravagant artwork, and intricately carved furniture, it felt like stepping back in time. This hotel pays attention to detail! Our overnight stay included birds serenading us in the dining room and flower petals strewn everywhere, even in the toilet. Fancy!
Our final day in Ecuador turned out to be the most special for me.
We decided on a day trip to the Otavalo Market, two hours north of Quito. This market is the largest and best known in Ecuador where you may find traditional artisan goods, like blankets, sweaters, handbags, wood carvings, pottery, and paintings.
It was here that I was inspired to open the WSG Shop, after discovering the traditional handmade bags we now carry in our store. The craft has been handed down through generations of Ecuadorian women. Using large wooden looms, they spin their wool, each creating a unique design which can then be made into a blanket, or in our case, stitched into the detail of these handmade suede bags.
My hope is to be a small part of keeping this tradition alive and providing opportunity to support these women on their road to financial independence. I hope you enjoy the craftsmanship as much as I do.