All of Southern Ecuador deserves more attention, but the city of Loja most of all. This vibrant capital, founded in 1548 by Field Marshal Alonso de Mercadillo, retains many historically important government buildings and churches. Dotted with beautifully landscaped plazas, walkable sidewalks, and the narrowest city street in all of Ecuador, the town is perfect for pedestrians. Loja makes a great home base for exploring nearby destinations like Saraguro, where locals still wear native costumes that include black and white painted hats; Vilcabamba, home to some of the oldest residents of Ecuador and the so-called fountain of youth; and the Podocarpus National Park.
With its Class I to Class IV white water rivers, Tena attracts American kayakers looking for a winter destination to ride the rapids. Recently, this medium-sized town in the Amazon Basin has experienced a boom in new restaurants and bars catering to adventure tourists looking for great food and even better beer. Many small communities in the area are developing tourism projects so that visitors can explore caverns, cascades, and backwater passageways without having to break the bank. Tena is also ideally situated to explore the Rio Napo, gateway to the Yasuni National Park.
Cayambe Coca National Park, Papallacta Entrance
The Cayambe Coca National Park is huge, with three separate access points to explore very different destinations. The entrance near Papallacta is rarely used but is a gateway to a unique ecosystem not often visited by international tourists. The back road winds up through mountainous high paramo (treeless plateau), crossing land that the Andean spectacled bear calls home. At the ranger station, the road turns into multiple trails. Some head to pocket lakes full of trout, a favorite destination for local fishermen. Another leads to a picturesque water reservoir. Waterfalls and cascades gush from high mountain peaks. The weather is almost always bad, but the ever-present mist and rain add mystery to this beautiful landscape.
Cotopaxi National Park, the Back Roads
While Cotopaxi National Park is a popular destination, few people know that the back roads on the northern side of the volcano lead to some impressive territory. Whether traveled by 4WD or by horseback, the trail crosses gently running streams, ancient volcanic lahar (debris) flows, and high Andean paramo. A natural spring, ancient Incan ruins, and the stunning panoramas make this place special. Add a view of the volcano on a clear day and the trip becomes magical.
Cochasquí is home to the ancient pyramids of the Cara, a pre-Columbian culture who defied incursions from the invading Inca in the early 16th century. The entire complex includes 15 pyramids and 21 burial mounds over 210 acres of land. These pyramids have yet to be completely excavated, though initial archaeological digs uncovered ancient solar and lunar calendars and many ceramic remains. Local celebrations, including folk dancing and ceremonial cleansings, take place around the Andean New Year, on March 21. A nearby campground rents tent sites and cabins for visitors wanting to stay for more than a day.
The community of Agua Blanca, located near the coastal town of Puerto Lopez, lies in the heart of Machalilla National Park. The people have ancient ties to the land and a visit includes a trip to a nearby archaeology site and accompanying museum which holds many of the uncovered artifacts. This dry, coastal forest is also home to the curious-looking Ceibo—a tree with a bulbous, green base that remains bare most of the year but sends out sprays of cotton like-flowers in season—and over 270 species of birds. At the heart of the Agua Blanca community lies a sulfur-rich pool of cool water. Visitors plaster mud on bare skin, relax while the mud pulls impurities from their pores, and then jump into the deep lagoon.
The land between the eastern slope of the Andes and the Amazon Basin is rarely visited by tourists. In fact, there are very few places to stay in the Sumaco region. The rich rain forest of these Andean foothills is endangered by illegal logging and increased farming. Enter the Wild Sumaco Lodge, a non-profit that partners with the local community to rent primary forest to add to their own reserve. While bird watchers already visit in high numbers, nature lovers of all kinds should consider a stay. The back porch looks out into the tree canopy where wild monkeys come to eat fruit placed on many of the limbs. Hummingbirds flock to the feeders. Trails lead to hidden forest glens and expansive panoramas. Insect life is rich, especially at night, when headlamps and flashlights spotlight crickets, resting butterflies, and the occasional colorful frog.
Macas is a small community that serves as a bridge between the Andean Sierra and the Oriente, or Amazon Basin. Roads leading from Macas into mountains access the hard-to-access east slopes of the Sangay National Park. Roads to the east explore the tributaries to the great Amazon River. The town is quaint, with a photographic central park and modern church. Local communities welcome tourism and invite international and Ecuadorian visitors to meet local indigenous tribes of Shuar.
Located in the far south of Ecuador, Zamora is another city with a foot in the Sierra and the Oriente. It lies on the very edge of Podocarpus National Park and provides some of the easiest access to roads entering this wild destination. The medium-sized town of Zamora is often called the City of Birds and Waterfalls because of the confluence of streams that flow from the high Andes and fall into one of three local rivers, the Zamora, Bombucaro, and Jamboé. Birds are easily seen year round and include the darling spangled coquette hummingbird, which comes to many of the gardens found around town.
Manta, a town with its own airport, access to great restaurants, good hotels, and excellent beaches, makes a great home base for exploring the Ecuadorian coast. Beautiful beaches are found nearby, including Santa Marianita, famous for kitesurfing, and San Lorenzo, popular with surfers. The nearby community of Montecristi is famous for finely-crafted, handwoven Panama hats. A new archaeology museum recently opened near the inland town of Portoviejo. This region was hard hit by the 2016 earthquake, but is more than ready to welcome international tourism back to their Pacific shores.