Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Ecuador
1. The Galápagos Islands: Bartolome Island
Since their "discovery" in the 16th century, the Galápagos Islands have intrigued and inspired visitors from around the globe. Named for the giant tortoises on the islands, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to a unique ecosystem that largely evolved without outside influences (mainland Ecuador lies some 1,000 kilometers to the east) and offers an exceptional opportunity for wildlife viewing. The Galápagos Islands remain one of the most active volcanic regions in the world, and the formation of the islands is still in progress. Most of the 13 large islands, six smaller islands, and 42 islets that make up the Galápagos were declared part of the Galápagos National Park in the 1950s, and visiting this fragile ecosystem can only be undertaken as part of a guided tour to designated visitor sites (there are, however, one or two areas visitors can go without a guide, including some areas popular with scuba divers). The main attraction here are its many bird species of which 28 are unique to the islands, including the Galápagos penguin, flightless cormorant, and waved albatross, and the 13 species of Darwin's famous finches. Hot Tip: Be sure to book a behind-the-scenes visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island (tours of this important research facility can be made in advance of your arrival).
2. Quito: Ecuador's Historic Andean Capital
High in the Andes, Quito, the capital of Ecuador, is filled with colonial architecture and is the largest historic center in South America. Preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage site with many old churches, beautiful public squares, and world-class museums, the city has long been a favorite with artisans and is a great place to shop for local art and crafts, from ceramics and wood carvings to colorful clothing. The most famous attraction in Quito's historic center is the San Francisco Church on the Plaza San Francisco. Dating back to the first half of the 1500s, the church's white-washed twin towers flank each side of the entrance to this massive complex. It's notable for its splendid Baroque interior and the Convent Museum of San Francisco with its religious paintings, sculptures, carvings, porcelain, textiles, and handcrafted furniture. Other beautiful churches to visit include La Compania de Jesus Church, constructed in the early 17th century and listed by UNESCO as one of the top 100 most important buildings in the world, and Quito's cathedral, Basílica del Voto Nacional, constructed in the 1560s. Be sure to explore Plaza Grande, a beautiful square surrounded by the cathedral, the Presidential Palace, the Archbishop's Palace, and the Municipal Palace, as well as Calle La Ronda, a buzzing street lined with restaurants, cafés, art galleries, and other entertainment.