Exploring Ecuador’s all 5 World Heritage Sites in 11 days
In Ecuador, as a testament to the diversity we continuously brag about, there are 5 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The city of Quito, the historic centre of Cuenca, the Qhapaq Ñan Inca Road System, the Galapagos Islands, and the Sangay National Park.
Certainly, having several sites with this classification is a source of pride for Ecuadorians, but as the name suggests, their existence is relevant to the entire World. This means that you (yes, you reading this), regardless of your nationality, are entitled to the enjoyment of any of the World Heritage Sites, simply because you are a citizen of the world.
Following this notion, we invite you to rightfully claim all the World Heritage Sites as your own. You can start this gladdening challenge by enjoying Ecuador’s 5 World Heritage Sites within 11 days, as all of them are conveniently found relatively near to each other.
Keep reading to discover what an 11-day itinerary exploring Ecuador’s Heritage Sites would look like!
The starting point for this adventure is Quito. The Ecuadorian capital is well connected with direct flights from 10 cities in Europe, North America and Central America.
While landing in Quito and peeking out of the plane window, you could already get a glimpse of the privileged geographic location of the city. It is isolated in the middle of the high Andes, spread along the slopes of several mountains and volcanoes, and surrounded by green patchwork valleys.
At the airport, a native English-speaking guide will be waiting to assist you with your luggage and transfer you to the selected hotel, very likely located in the heart of the city, 30 minutes away.
It is wise to spend the first afternoon-evening in Quito taking it easy, as the city’s very high altitude of 2850 m / 9350 ft above sea level means low oxygen saturation levels. The body needs at least +8 hours of rest to properly acclimatise.
Today you will properly immerse yourself in the place that won Quito its categorization as a World Heritage Site: its colonial historic centre.
You will be brought to the approximate site where the city was founded by Spanish conquerors in 1534, over the ruins of an ancient trading post where indigenous tribes merged for millennia. Here are located the religious citadels of San Francisco, Santo Domingo, San Augustin, La Merced and La Compañía.
It would take an entire book to describe the wonders found inside each citadel, but we might provide you with a little taste of the latter, La Compañía de Jesus. This church is the major and best example of Latin American baroque architecture. Besides its elaborate façade, masterly carved out of volcanic rock, visitors usually get overwhelmed by its completely gold-leafed interior, a fusion of Spanish, Indigenous, Moorish, Italian and Flemish influences.
The entire historic centre forms a harmonious ensemble, as it was built under the guidelines of Quito’s own artistic style: the Baroque school of Quito (Escuela Quiteña). This style organically emerged during the following centuries after the city’s foundation, and it is characterized by bringing together elements of the indigenous and European aesthetic traditions to produce some of the world’s most astonishing contributions to universal art and architecture.
This is not all that Quito has to offer, though! The city is also very near to the place crossed by the equatorial line (this is where the country takes its name from). After completing the tour of the historic centre, you could visit the place crossed by the line that divides the world into two hemispheres.
The main attraction here is the unique gravitational anomalies, which can be better understood at the Inti Ñan Solar Museum (Inti Ñan means “Path of the Sun” in Kichwa) by engaging in different interactive experiments. Finally, it is also possible to stand with one foot in the northern hemisphere and the other in the southern, and take a memorable photo!
World Heritage Site #1 – Quito: Check!
This morning you will embark on a land transfer southward, heading to the Sangay National Park (World Heritage Site #2), located at the intersection of the Andes with the Amazon rainforest.
In the middle of the 3-hour journey to Sangay, there is the chance to stop for an inspiring visit to the incredible Cotopaxi National Park. Not a World Heritage Site itself, but certainly breathtaking, the Cotopaxi volcano is a perfectly symmetrical and glaciated active cone -the highest in the world- with an altitude of 5897m/19347ft above sea level! Its highlands are excellent for birdwatching, trekking, biking or horseback riding.
After the optional stop, the transfer continues its journey to Baños, a town that is the entry point to the Sangay National Park, to be explored tomorrow. There is more to do in Baños than sleeping though. The town is famous for its natural thermal pools and nightlife!
Days 4 - 5
The Sangay National Park is so vast and outstanding that you will need to plan at least 2 days for its exploration. The route followed crosses the entire spectrum of ecosystems of the National Park, including glacial and volcanic ecosystems, cloud forests, Amazon rainforest, wetlands, lakes, and paramo grasslands.
All our tours depart from Baños, and the duration and specific itinerary of each depends on the individual travellers’ physical condition and preferences. Accommodation is done camping in tents, and all meal services plus assistance from professional guides are provided.
Visit sites include:
- Tungurahua Volcano: A beautiful cone-shaped volcano, one of the most active in Ecuador and all of South America, sporadically in an eruptive phase.
- El Altar Volcano: An inactive volcano, which caldera has two horseshoe-shaped peaks; in its crater is found an otherworldly lagoon of yellow waters, impressively covered with an icy mantle where glaciers hang.
- El Altar Wetlands: Seemingly at the end of the world, specifically located to the south of the Altar volcano, the Wetlands of El Altar are made up of 5 surreally pristine lakes: Verde, Azul, Estrellada, Mandur and Quindecocha.
- Sangay Volcano: A perfect cone-shaped volcano notable for its long periods of continuous activity. Visitors, while exploring its rugged topography with steep-sided valleys, abundant cliffs and many rocky jagged peaks, are likely to witness its powerful and vibrant eruptions from a safe location.
- Rio Cugusha Waterfall: A beautiful waterfall surrounded by fantastic tropical nature.
- Sardinayacu lagoons: This Wetland has outstanding and original peculiarities, as it is surrounded by virgin primary forest, where the plant species are gigantic.
- Tiririco Mountain Range: Offers a privileged view of the Altar and Sangay volcanoes.
- Much, much more, depending on the route followed.
World Heritage Site #2 – Sangay National Park: Check!
The next World Heritage Site to be explored is the Qhapaq Ñan, an ancient road system laid out by the Inca empire. The most well-preserved section of this wonder in Ecuador precisely extends from Sangay National park!
That’s why today’s adventure consists of a 6-hour trekking from the southern side of the National Park towards the Ingapirca Archaeological Complex.
The first stop will be the Culebrillas Lagoon, considered a sacred place by the Incas because of its snake shape and strategic location between the empire’s capital Cuzco and the northern enclave of Quito. Next, the archaeological sites of Tambo de Paredones and Labrsacarumi offer an interesting insight into the infrastructure development of the Incas.
The route finishes at the Ingapirca archaeological ruins. These date back to approximately 500 B.C. when the Inca empire expanded north and established political control centres in this area. The highlight here is the elliptical Temple of the Sun, which crowns a rocky hillock that was considered a sacred place by ancient tribes. Mysterious tombs are silent witnesses of the fierce power disputes that occurred here before the final Spanish invasion in the 16th century.
The day ends with you being picked up at Ingapirca and driven to Cuenca. This city is another World Heritage Site because of its rich architectural buildings and historical importance. You will be dropped off at the selected hotel there.
World Heritage Site #3 – Qhapaq Ñan, Andean Road System: Check!
Cuenca is located on a valley crossed by 4 rivers and has monuments, palaces and churches from the Inca (500AD – 1500AD), colonial (1534 – 1809) and republican (1830 – 1900) periods.
Among more surprises, you will visit the 2 main squares of the city: the San Sebastian square, which breathes a vintage provincial atmosphere; and the San Francisco square, with its famous church, built in a beautiful neoclassical style from 1527 to 1789, and containing a finely carved, gold-covered altar as well as religious art pieces from old indigenous and mestizo masters.
Adjacent there are small handicraft shops selling exquisitely embroidered skirts in the style used by local indigenous women, as well as a daily flower market, where wonderful roses, orchids, and arum lilies compose a cheerful palette of colours and smells.
Later, you will be driven up the hill of Turi, a viewpoint where guests can admire the city, and visit the workshop of some world-famous artists (Cuenca is considered one of the most cultured cities in Latin America). On the way down, a visit to the Pumapungo site museum will complete a culture-filled day. Pumapungo is an archaeological park built at the end of the 15th century, that contains the remains of an Inca city. It’s a great place to learn more about the ancient Andean cultures that preceded the Incas, their relationship with nature, and their legacy that persists in modern-day South American societies.
You will be transferred to the Cuenca airport, to catch an evening flight to the coastal city of Guayaquil. Upon arrival there, you will be welcomed and brought to a selected hotel to spend the night, before tomorrow’s departure to the Galapagos Islands!
World Heritage Site #4 – Cuenca: Check!
The Galapagos islands emerged approximately 20 million years ago from a volcanically active hotspot located under the eastern Pacific Ocean, some 1000 km from the Ecuadorian coast.
The island’s volcanic origin and mineral composition, combined with the large distances separating them from any other land, and the unique convergence of the cold Humboldt, Cromwell, and warmer Panama oceanic currents, create a very special place that has allowed its species to evolve in singular ways. The islands have been called “a unique living museum and showcase of evolution”
The best way to discover the Galapagos Islands is on board a cruise. ATC’s sister company, Oniric cruises, offers safari-style cruises that reach all remote corners of these enchanted islands with almost daily departures.
This day will begin with you being picked up from the hotel in Guayaquil and driven to the airport, to catch a flight to Baltra Island. Upon landing there, a naturalist guide awaits to help collect the luggage and escort you to the harbour, to board one of the Oniric cruise’s yachts. After a greeting from the crew and captain, your cabin will be assigned and lunch served.
Galapagos cruises are unlike other larger, massive cruises in the Caribbean or elsewhere, where shopping, eating and drinking compulsively are the main activities. Galapagos is a very fragile natural area, and its National Park directorate only allows a restricted number of small embarkations to sail with tourists. The purpose of Galapagos cruises is to bring world explorers to one of the last pristine natural sanctuaries of earth, enabling close but careful approaches to unique wildlife not to be found elsewhere.
Every morning passengers wake up to a different island’s view, with navigation mostly taking place during the night, to make the most of everyone’s limited time in this area full of wonders to discover. All 3 daily delicious meals are included, as well as onboard entertainment, conferences, and private accommodation at beautiful and comfortable cabins.
Guests enjoy 2 daily excursions, most of which include hiking, snorkelling, kayaking, and more, subject to change based on weather and logistic conditions.
Your first excursion will be at Bachas beach. This is a white sand bay at Baltra island, where you will have time for leisure, followed by an exploration of a hidden lagoon, where it’s possible to observe sea birds such as flamingos, black-necked stilts and whimbrels. Some old abandoned barges might also be spotted, dating back to World War II when the United States rented this island as a strategic military point to protect the southern Pacific.
You will return on board to enjoy a welcome toast, dinner, amenities and a well-deserved rest in your fully equipped ocean-view cabin.
Last night we navigated to the northernmost island of the archipelago, Genovesa, which is a bird paradise. As you approach today’s landing, you will see soaring 25 m/80 ft high walls that make the entrance to a large volcanic submerged caldera. On the shaded ledges of these walls, Galapagos fur seals rest alongside seabirds.
After disembarking, you will hike uphill to a bush of aromatic palo santo trees where the beautiful and rare Red-footed boobies nest. At the seaside of the rim, the bushes open up to panoramic views, where the strong sea breeze flows free and enables seabirds to perform amazing aerial feats at eye height.
The afternoon’s visit is to Darwin Bay, located inside the submerged caldera of Genovesa. This area has a diameter of more than 1.5 km/1 mi and it is almost 200 m/650 ft deep. You will walk along a coral sand beach, cross barren lava formations, pass tidal pools, and reach the top of some cliffs, where every single species has occupied its own ecological niche. Here it is possible to listen to songbirds such as the yellow warbler, Darwin’s finches and the Galapagos mockingbird. Uniquely, two subpopulations of the same species of finch differ in their singing!
Last night the cruise navigated to Bartolome island, which offers some of the wildest landscapes and best panoramas of the entire archipelago. The first sight here is an iconic pinnacle rock that rises majestically from the bay. After admiring it from different angles, you will disembark on the island and climb 350 steps to the summit, crossing paths with lava lizards, Galapagos hawks and Galapagos racer snakes. The view from the top is simply indescribable.
Next, at the appropriately named Golden Beach, you might practice snorkelling in crystal-clear waters. Swim from the beach and witness precious coral formations that are an important feeding area for sea turtles and colourful reef fish, reaching the pinnacle, where several species of (harmless) reef sharks are found.
This afternoon’s visit to Sullivan Bay is like a moon landing. These desolate, sprawling fields seem to be out of this planet, therefore this island is very popular among photographers and geologists. The last eruption here occurred in 1897 and covered the bay with Pahoehoe lava flows, which are characterized by smooth, gently undulating, or broadly hummocky surfaces.
The nearby beach has clear, shallow waters that invite to snorkel, and if curious swimmers venture to deeper waters, generous marine life can be found, like Galapagos penguins, Pacific green turtles, whitetip reef sharks (careless about humans), Galapagos sea lions, and rays.
The last visit is to an area populated by wild Galapagos giant tortoises! Because these massive reptiles don’t stop their migration patterns at the official limits of the National Park, dozens of them also roam the agricultural lands.
You will have the chance to watch giant tortoises taking muddy baths, devouring fallen fruits, and carrying birds on their backs, including Darwin’s finches, vermilion flycatchers and yellow warblers.
This is where the adventure at the 5th World Heritage Site ends. You will get transferred to Baltra airport to catch a flight back to the Ecuadorian mainland.
World Heritage Site #5 – Galapagos Islands: Check!
It sounds thrilling, doesn’t it? In the span of 11 days, it’s possible to discover the cultural treasures of Quito and Cuenca, cities where opposing cultures clashed and merged, changing the direction of history; penetrate the depths of the far-flung Sangay National Park and enjoy its contrasting ecosystems; explore the archaeological remnants of one of the most powerful empires in history, the Inca, at Qhapaq Ñan; and finally, enjoy the adventure of a lifetime in the most outlandish and precious natural sanctuary, the Galapagos.
Even if it sounds counterintuitive, it’s possible to become a worldly traveller just by exploring Ecuador, as the country is like an encyclopedia of some of the earth’s best features.