El Conquistqdor Francisco de Orellana

El Conquistqdor Francisco de Orellana
The Conquistador who put the Amazaon baisn "on the map"....Francisco Orellana

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Where to go in 2013: Ecuador

Why go in 2013? Making tracks

There's a buzz in the Andean air – or, rather, a klaxon blast. Ecuador's rail network, almost totally closed after the devastating floods brought by El Niño in the 1990s, is scheduled for a radical $250m (£150m) revamp in 2013, rebuilding lines between increasingly cosmopolitan Quito in the mountains and the port of Guayaquil. Tracks will also connect Ecuador's famed 5,900m volcano Cotopaxi and the Nariz del Diablo (Devil's Nose), claiming the steepest (and most hair-raising) stretch of railway in the Western world. It's not for nothing that Ecuadorians dub their railway the most difficult train in the world – and the restoration has been Ecuador's most ambitious tourism project. But developers believe it will pull in unprecedented tourist numbers.

And why wouldn't it? International visitors to this diminutive but diverse nation are already at an all-time high and navigating it has never been so much fun. The highlight will be the chance to see hitherto remote places such as Machachi with Ecuador's finest old haciendas or the Baños del Inca archaeological site.

If trains don't do it for you, chocolate might. The country produces some 60 per cent of the world's quality cacao and new, exclusively chocolate-themed tours kick-off in November.

Ecuador's wildlife is why tourism started here, but this year eco-excursions just got flashier. Mashpi Lodge now offers a "boutique Amazon" experience with treetop gondola whooshing guests 2km through the jungle canopy.

Life-changing experiences

Start your Ecuadorian foray in Quito, which is Unesco-listed along with the country's other mountain metropolis, Cuenca. See the handicraft markets at Otavalo and visit one of the world's highest, most active and dramatic volcanos, Cotopaxi. If you ride only one train, make it the Riobamba–Alausi–Sibambe line with its ridiculously sheer switchback descent around the Nariz del Diablo. In Ecuador, you can be in the high Andes one moment and the rainforest or beach the next. After the mountains, soak up volcanically heated spas in Baños or go Amazon birdwatching in the world's most biodiverse spot. Nowhere else offers such diversity.

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