Top ecotourism destinations in Ecuador
Are you looking for ecotourism destinations in Ecuador? Did you know that Ecuador is becoming one of the top ecotourism destinations in the world, competing with countries like Costa Rica?
Over the years, the Ecuadorian government has caught on to an obvious trend: tourists like nature. They like to experience what they can’t experience at home and they like it in a pristine state. They will pay good money and risk typhoid fever to see the Amazon and to experience the Galapagos Islands. Also, they want to participate in activities that will further protect these natural wonders.
While oil drilling in the Amazon and overfishing in the Pacific continue to threaten Ecuador’s ecosystems, the government’s recent interest in the ecotourism industry is leading to greater efforts to protect its natural resources, thereby injecting the local economy with capital and employment opportunities. I’d say this is good news.
The fact is, Ecuador has huge potential when it relates to ecotourism, and tourism in general, due to a couple of noteworthy characteristics. Few countries in the region can offer what Ecuador offers, including:
- In a relatively small geographic area, visitors have access to incredible geographic diversity. You can literally drive from the rainforest, through the Andes and to the coast in a day. That’s crazy!
- Compared to some of its neighbors, Ecuador is a politically and economically stable country. There’s no threat of civil war, military coups, or humanitarian crises. (Ok, to be fair, there was a pretty disastrous earthquake a few years ago on the coast, but it didn’t affect the whole country.)
- And, finally: dollars. Ecuador uses dollars, and it’s cheap (for now)! If you’re careful, you can travel across Ecuador, and even to the Galapagos Islands, on a tight budget.
In the following blog, we’ll uncover some of the top ecotourism destinations in Ecuador and the reasons why you need to visit them, but first let’s review some basic information about ecotourism.
How does ecotourism differ from regular tourism?
Nowadays, people slap on the word “eco” to just about everything to increase its value. Like most marketing ploys, it can be used unethically, twisting the origins and true meaning of the concept.
Ecotourism is a relatively recent travel trend catered to travelers that want to appreciate and experience a country’s natural environment without causing harm, but there’s more to it than that. Ecotourism relates to personal growth, socially responsible travel as well as environmental sustainability.
As you explore the various tour packages, destinations and hostels in Ecuador, many of which will use the term “ecotourism” to describe their business, try to look a little further. For instance, an important element of ecotourism is that it directly benefits the economic development and political empowerment of local communities. Does the hostel engage with local communities beyond providing employment opportunities?
Another goal in ecotourism is to reduce the negative impact of humans on the environment. This can be accomplished through sustainable practices around water conservation and recycling. When a hostel has installed dry or composting toilets across their premises and are educating travelers about the use of these toilets for water conservation, that indicates true commitment to environmental conservation.
Ultimately, many will argue that ecotourism for international visitors is a bit of an oxymoron since the flight they took to travel leads to global climate change and an overall negative effect on the environment. Sigh. You can never win.
It is of no surprise that Cotopaxi is one of Ecuador’s top ecotourism destinations. This impressive, and very much active, volcano towers in the horizon from Quito and attracts both local and international tourists.
Like most ecotourism destinations, Cotopaxi is part of a fragile ecosystem. Due to global warming, its glaciers have been receding significantly. Then, in August 2015, when seismic activity and gas emissions increased in the volcano, there were fears that its glaciers would melt entirely, causing lahars (massive mudslides) that would obliterate the surrounding towns and cities.
No one really knows how much longer we’ll have to experience this mighty giant, so get there before it’s too late!
Cotopaxi Volcano is located in the Cotopaxi National Park, which spans 334 km² (208 miles2). This protected area is home to wild horses, the Andean Condor, the Andean speckled bear and the Andean puma. While you might not see all of these animals during your visit, just knowing they’re out there, under the shadow of an enormous, snow-capped volcano, is pretty darn cool.
The businesses around Cotopaxi National Park are well aware of their responsibility to maintain and protect this pristine ecosystem. A few of them have done a better job than others to ensure that travellers also participate in its conservation.
A few recommended establishments include:
- The Secret Garden
- Tierra del Volcán
- Chilcabamba Lodge
While you’re in Cotopaxi, try to take in as much of the surroundings as possible. Hike to the base camp, or refugio, and go bird watching at Laguna Limpiopungo. Camp out under the stars and ride across the páramo on horseback. Experience high-altitude downhill mountain biking and, if you’re in good shape, summit the world’s tallest active volcano!
A trip through the Amazon
Pristine. Fragile. Undisturbed. Those are three words associated with ecotourism destinations and three words that describe much of Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest. Incredibly, the Amazon still exists, though it is disappearing at an agonizing rate.
The Ecuadorian government has made efforts to support ecotourism generally but, sadly, it is destroying its own rainforest to extract oil. Indigenous nations, like the Shuar and Kichwa, are adamantly fighting for their territories and natural resources, but government authorities have made it so that consent from these communities isn’t necessary for extraction to take place.
I know, this isn’t something you really want to read in a blog about Ecuador’s top ecotourism destination, but I think it’s important that you know what you’re dealing with as a traveler in Ecuador. And, since Ecuador relies heavily on tourism, participating in ecotourism might be one way to encourage increased protection of the region, instead of destruction.
The Ecuadorian rainforest is teeming with life. The Yasuní Biosphere Reserve, located within the Ecuadorian Amazon, is considered one of the world’s most biodiverse areas. Other protected areas within the Amazon include the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, Cayambe-Coca National Park, Sumaco-Napo-Galeras National Park and the Llanganates.
Apart from the Galapagos Islands, the Amazon is where you’ll find the highest density of ecotourism and community projects. A few favorites include:
- Sinchi Warmi – A few kilometers south of Misahualli, this community tourism project is owned and run by an association of Kichwa women. You can stay in hand-built, attractive wooden cabins that are set around a small lake. “Sinchi warmi” means “strong women” in Kichwa and visiting the project is a great way to support the association and the community as a whole. Their restaurant offers local specialties as well as international dishes and vegetarian options.
- Siekopai – Outside of Lago Agrio, the Siekoya Remolino community protects 17,000 hectares of rainforest and is run by four families who have created a tourism project, Campamento Kwakwiyo. Accommodation is with families or in a covered camping area. Ayahuasca ceremonies are available with very well respected shamans. Here, you can birdwatch, go on a night walk, a canoe trip; a jungle hike; harvest yucca. Inquire with Wanderbus directly for more information.
- Fundación Hola Vida – Near the city of Puyo, Fundación Hola Vida has trails you can explore through 225 hectares of secondary rainforest, including a beautiful waterfall. The area is located 27 kilometers south of Puyo just off the Via Macas. The waterfall is a 20-minute walk from the entrance to the reserve and can be visited independently or with a guide
Quilotoa Lake and its surrounding area
Google “Ecuador travel” and Quilotoa is bound to appear among the first 10 images. Many of you likely know about this ecotourism destination in Ecuador, even before visiting. It’s an astoundingly beautiful spot, especially when you’re standing on the lip of the crater, overlooking its beautiful turquoise lake where a volcano once stood.
Among the numerous activities you can do in the area, nature lovers will appreciate the Quilotoa Loop the most. The Quilotoa Loop is a customizable, multi-day trek in the area surrounding the Quilotoa crater. One advantage to doing the Loop is that you don’t need to have all your camping gear on you. At nearly all of the small towns you’ll visit, you’ll find a decent hostel where you can rest before the next leg of your trek.
Compared to the Amazon and Galapagos there aren’t many ecotourism options to choose from in Quilotoa, but the few you do find are top notch, like the Black Sheep Inn.
This rural lodge is 100% community operated and partially self-sustaining. It produces fresh veggies from its own gardens and vegetarian meals to its visitors. Recycling and compost toilets are a given, not to mention other water conservation efforts, a community education project and a conservation project to protect the Illiniza Cloud Forest. If this isn’t a model for ecotourism, I don’t know what is.
The 3 M’s: Maquipukuna, Mashpi and Mindo
A lush tract of the Andean Chocó ecosystem northwest of Quito, around 2-3 hours from the city, is another national ecotourism destination that’s easy to reach and enjoy.
To start, there’s the Maquipukuna Reserve, recently recognized as a UNESCO-designated biosphere reserve. Within the reserve you’ll find an ecolodge that offers comfortable accommodation, camping and even a science station. Among the activities you can do there bear and bird watching are the most popular. That’s right, there’s a good chance to witness the Andean Spectacled bear in its natural environment here. Finally, the project also involves local communities through various community projects including homestays and locally guided multi-day treks.
Mashpi is a town farther west from Maquipukuna. It is the location of Mashpi Lodge, a luxury ecolodge and biology research station. Though oriented more towards scientific classification and conservation, the Lodge also engages with the local community in various projects.
And then there’s Mindo, another much more touristic town that you’ve probably already heard of, located in the same area. Over the years, Mindo has developed significantly and offers quite a number of ecotourism activities and projects that you can easily visit on a day trip or overnight trip from Quito.
The Galapagos Islands
Last, but definitely not least, I can’t conclude this blog without mentioning the Galapagos Islands, possibly THE top ecotourism destination in Ecuador.
Considering how important the Galapagos Islands are to Ecuadorian heritage and its economy, it’s no surprise how regulated things are over there. In fact, it’s one of the most regulated national parks in the world.
Even as a paying guest to the Galapagos, you’re expected to follow quite a few rules, including:
- Only visit protected areas with an authorized naturalist guide
- Don’t touch the animals
- Don’t feed the animals
- Leave no trace
The activities you can do on the Islands all revolve around appreciation of the environment and wildlife. As a result, the wild animals here aren’t scared of humans and feel comfortable enough to chill just about everywhere.
Among some of our favorite ecotourism projects are:
Ecuador needs you to invest in ecotourism. As the tourism industry further develops, it is vital that local operators prioritize conservation along with their regular activities. If you, as a customer, express a preference for sustainable practices and activities, the tourism industry will develop around that.
Don’t worry though, it’s not all on your shoulders. We’re all doomed, regardless.