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Ecuador & The Galapagos: Why Small Group Travel In Ecuador Should Be On Your Bucket List

Ecuador - we’ve all heard about the majestic Galapagos Islands and the stunning wildlife, but truth be told there’s so much more to this diverse country than what you might see on the Discovery Channel. Heart of Travel has been operating small group trips throughout Ecuador since 2017 and it has quickly become one of our most sought-after tours - and for good reason! Our in-house Tour Leader, Ana Castillo, affectionately known as Chiva, has absolutely fallen in love with this mega-diverse country. So, we sat down with her to chat about all of her favorite things in Ecuador!

Why You Should Travel to Ecuador 

Whether you’re looking for a cultural immersion trip or one that gets you off the beaten path and amongst nature, Ecuador is your place. Our “Exploring the Andes and the Galapagos Islands” tour takes you from the cityscape of Quito, to Otavalo’s fertile lands and home to agriculture, artist, and artisan goods. From there you’ll marvel at the snow-capped volcano and mountains of the Cotopaxi National Park before heading to the famed Galapagos Islands.

Here’s why Chiva loves this particular tour: Ecuador boasts a diverse range of microclimates, which are a result of its varied topography and geographic location. From tropical rainforests to snow-capped volcanoes, Ecuador has it all, and for me as a nature lover that makes it the ideal destination. I remember the day we visited The Cajas National Park, a beautiful protected area located in the Andes highlands. We were surrounded by cold lagoons which were formed by glaciers during the last ice age, rugged mountains, and tall Andean oaks. We squeezed together to take a picture as we felt the cool air on our faces. Not even an hour's drive later, we were in Guayaquil no more than 12 feet above sea level, sweating and laughing as we ground cacao by hand during our chocolate tour! During our drive, all our water bottles were completely deformed due to the quick pressure change. That’s how easily you can move from one microclimate to the next in Ecuador.

Another reason to love this destination is the rich cultural experience it provides. Ecuador is home to many indigenous communities, and each of these communities has its unique traditions and customs. In Otavalo, the community is known for its intricately woven textiles made from alpaca or sheep wool. Walking on the street you see the women wearing long skirts, blouses, and shawls, while men wear white pants, ponchos, and fedoras. That day we had lunch with our friend Antonio and his family, and we shared fanesca (a traditional soup made with beans, grains, and vegetables, typically eaten during the Easter holiday), roasted chicken, and llapingachos (mashed potato cakes filled with cheese and served with peanut sauce and salad). Later we lazily walked through the colorful and vibrant market while eating paila ice cream, and listening to San Juanito music in every corner, which is characterized by lively rhythms and haunting melodies.

Lastly, I think Ecuador has the perfect balance of adventure and luxury. The haciendas where we stay in the highlands are breathtaking, and it’s no surprise that when the father of the independence movement in South America, Simón de Bolívar, stayed at Hacienda Pinsaquí during the Latin American wars of independence, he discovered a deep feeling of peace between the white stone gates and gardens of the property. It’s a true privilege to experience the same tranquility as we stroll through the colonial grounds of this truly historic hotel after a long day of exploring Otavalo. Right on the outskirts of this indigenous town, Hacienda Pinsaqui was built in 1790 to serve as a textile plant that produced beautiful native fabrics. After an earthquake damaged it in 1867, it was extensively rebuilt to provide the latest trend in elegance: fine hardwood floors, French chandeliers, and stone fireplaces. The hotel's tradition of personalized service continues, as the owner joined us that night at the bar to tell us the history of the hacienda, listen to regional folk music, and dance until our feet hurt!

Is Ecuador Safe?

A question we commonly hear is, “Is Ecuador safe?” Ecuador is consistently ranked as one of the safest countries in South America to visit, and we feel this to ring true. With travel comes inherent risk, but crime targeted toward tourists in Ecuador is usually confined to petty crimes such as pickpocketing or bag snatching, in crowded areas. Our itinerary does not include much time in these areas to begin with and we will always be in a group alongside our local guides and Tour Leaders. That said, it is of course advisable to keep valuables out of sight and if using a money belt or hidden pouch feels good to you, do it!  We always recommend avoiding carrying large amounts of cash, and your tour leader is always happy to help you find an ATM whenever you need more. We advise that travelers walk together in a group, especially at night, but rest assured that in every new city we visit we’ll give you a brief orientation and run down. We are happy to report that none of our travelers to Ecuador, or any of our other destinations, have ever been the victim of any type of crime and we will work hard to keep things that way! 

"There’s definitely a warmth to Latin American people and culture, and Ecuador is no exception. Whether I was in the bustling city of Quito or the quiet rural town of Otavalo, I was usually greeted with warm smiles, genuine interest, and a willingness to help. It’s very similar to what people say their experience is when they come to my home country,  Guatemala. I think that’s one of the reasons why I feel I’m never traveling too far away from home when I go anywhere in Latin America. So, if you're planning a trip to Ecuador, be prepared to be embraced by the kindness and generosity of its people." - Chiva Castillo, Heart of Travel Guide

What To Do in Ecuador

Ecuador offers a wealth of cultural and natural attractions to visitors, no matter their age, preference, or style of travel! Quito, the capital city, boasts a well-preserved historic center and stunning views of the surrounding Andes Mountains and is a great spot to kick off your travels throughout the country. Otavalo, located in the northern highlands, is famous for its indigenous communities who share their customs, culture, and crafts with pride to visitors. Cotopaxi National Park is a must-visit destination for nature enthusiasts, featuring the Cotopaxi volcano and a range of hiking trails where we’ll fill our lungs with fresh mountain air. And of course, the Galapagos Islands are a bucket-list destination for wildlife lovers, offering the opportunity to see unique species such as giant tortoises, marine iguanas, and blue-footed boobies - be sure to bring your binoculars! We really do believe that Ecuador offers something for every type of traveler and is a wonderful destination to explore as a solo traveler on our group tour, with your significant other, or even as a family destination! Here's some of Chiva's favorite Ecuador activities:

What can’t you do in Ecuador would be the better question. Canopy in Baños, street food of your choosing in Quito, hiking the highest active volcano in Latin America at Cotopaxi, snorkeling in the Galapagos… the options are truly endless! For me just walking around Quito, soaking in all the different life styles and people-watching in the plaza was one of the best times I had there. Make sure to grab yourself an helado for your walk around the city, as vendors hawk cones of soft serve vanilla swirled with dulce de leche or blackberry by the roadside. It’s the perfect complement to a lazy afternoon stroll.

The Galapagos Islands: What You Need To Know

We couldn’t talk about Ecuador without giving a little extra love to the Galapagos Islands. Instead of us telling you about it, hear why Chiva has truly fallen in love with this part of the world!

"I’m not exaggerating when I say Galapagos changed my life. This is one of the world's most unique and fragile ecosystems, with a diverse range of flora and fauna found nowhere else on Earth. They are home to a wide range of endemic species that can only be seen here such as the Galapagos giant tortoise, marine iguana, and flightless cormorant. These islands also played a significant role in the development of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, as he observed the variations in finches' beaks and the adaptation of tortoises to their environments. They are located at the convergence of several ocean currents, creating a unique marine environment with a diverse range of marine life, including sharks, rays, sea lions, and penguins. They were formed by volcanic activity, resulting in a landscape that is unique and otherworldly, with lava flows, volcanic craters, and geysers. Visiting and learning about these islands changed my environmental awareness, appreciation of diversity, and connection to the natural world in a way that no other trip has ever done. Snorkeling here felt like a spiritual experience. It motivated me to get my scuba diving certification because I wanted to be able to chase that feeling of connectedness elsewhere. I have immense gratitude for every opportunity I get to visit this place and I hope I can continue to do so for the rest of my life."

When You Should Travel to Ecuador

Deciding when to visit Ecuador depends on your preferences and travel style! The country's diverse geography means that weather patterns can vary greatly depending on where you go. Are you a beach lover? Then consider visiting the coast from December to May, when you'll experience lush green landscapes and fewer crowds, despite the occasional rain shower. Prefer cooler temperatures and mountain scenery? Plan your trip to the highlands between June and November, the dry season, and explore the charming city of Quito or hike the trails of Cotopaxi National Park. And of course, if you're eager to witness the incredible wildlife of the Galapagos Islands, schedule your trip from June to November for less crowds and clearer skies. Whatever your preference, Ecuador offers an adventure for everyone, any time of year!

Bueno, we hope you’ve felt inspired to travel to this fabulous country after reading about how passionate Chiva is about this part of the world. We absolutely love running tours here and can’t wait to get back this summer! Ready to get to Ecuador? 

We have FIVE spots left on our June trip happening the 6-19th! We would love to have you join us and we know this is going to be the trip of a lifetime. Have any questions? Send us an email at and we’ll chat through them.

Abrazos desde la bella Antigua, Guatemala,

The Heart of Travel Team

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