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Ecuador: Your guide to the "new Costa Rica"
Anyway, here's a quick-and-dirty rundown of the highlights and lowlights of Ecuador's three regions-- East, Central and West.
To hear the reputation of the city of Guayaquil, you'd think that calling it a cesspool of crap would be insulting to all those plucky little bacteria out there who survive on human excrement. The truth is that, despite Guayaquil's dismal reputation, things are rapidly improving, and lots of fun can be had in this port city of three million. There's a casino downtown if that's your thing, and the Malecón area on the riverfront is brand new and always packed with people. Head to the Urdesa district for some great restaurants and to the Kennedy Center for vibrant nightlife. For sightseeing, try the hilltop neighborhood known as Las Peñas, where you'll see a colorful slice of colonial Guayaquil.
The best-slash-only beach I went to in Ecuador was in Montañita, which is about two hours north of Guayaquil. The town is really chilled out and uber-friendly to backpackers, with plenty of places to eat and sleep (and smoke funny-looking cigarettes).
Shameless plug: A friend with whom I visited Montañita moved back there recently and opened a watering hole called Nuestrobar. Mention my name there and receive 50% off. (Warning: This deal may come as news to the owner.)
Gallery: A Photo Tour of Ecuador
Starting from the top, Quito, the capital, is a must-see destination. Quito's Old Town is a refined, dignified queen, full of majesty and grace. Explore her curves, and take her picture. Go ahead, she likes it. The New Town (especially the Mariscal area) is an ageless whore, a seductress, a vixen. She'll do anything for a buck, and she'll give you the best nights of your life.
There are a million-and-one places to go out in the Mariscal, but take taxis at night because the area can be a little dodgy. The Secret Garden hostel in the Old Town is highly recommended for its spectacular balcony view and lively backpacker atmosphere. It's the best budget place to stay in Quito by a lot. Make a reservation, as it's endorsed by Lonely Planet and therefore often packed.
Visit the cable cars known as the Telefériqo for a panoramic look at the city. Go early, as heavy fog tends to block the gorgeous view any time past noon.
For a challenging hike just a few hours from Quito, hire a guide and head to the world's tallest active volcano, Mt. Cotopaxi. At 19,347 feet, the climb will kick your ass unless you're in good shape and have spent time acclimatizing to the altitude. Still, it's possible to have a good time even if you prefer donuts to dumbells, and you don't make it all the way to the top. (I know from experience.)
Heading south from Quito, spend some time in the town of Baños, so named because of the existence of several thermal baths created by the nearby Tungurahua Volcano. Baños is where I stayed for about six weeks, so I might be biased, but it was just about the best Ecuador has to offer. It's nestled beautifully in the mountains, there is tons to do-- mountain biking, rafting, hiking, soaking in thermal baths, bungee-jumping off bridges, drinking, dancing with girls who are probably too young.
If you go, I recommend staying at Plantas y Blanco and eating at Casa Hood (great used book selection), and Cafe Hood. And yes, there are two different restaurants with the word "Hood" in the name-- it's a long story.
Taking the bus south from Baños, you'll come to the beautiful old colonial city of Cuenca. It's where I met the most beautiful girl in Ecuador, and for that reason, it will always hold a spot near and dear to me.
In the southernmost region of the country, you'll find the small gringo-hippie-retiree town of Vilcabamba. If you enjoy talking about your chi and saying things like, "The energy in this room just doesn't feel right," this is the place for you. Head to the Madre Tierra spa/hotel for the full effect.
The Amazonian jungle. I went for about a week, and it was certainly a experience I'll never forget. It costs about $40 a day to hire a guide, which you must do. Going into the jungle is just like it sounds-- lots of fascinating plants and animals, but lacking in creature comforts such as air conditioning, WiFi, and buildings with doors. Go if the preceding sounds appealing.
Note: When your jungle guide introduces you to a shaman who offers you a psychoactive tea called ayahuasca, politely refuse-- that is, unless you're looking to writhe in agony for hours while suffering from temporary psychosis and acute diarrhea. Or so I've heard.
If you have extra money, go to the Galápagos Islands. It's about the one thing in Ecuador I didn't do, but wished I had. It'll cost US$1000 to go for a week, but it's cheaper if you fly to the islands and explore on your own rather than joining a pre-arranged tour.
For more info, consider picking up an Ecuador guidebook or make your own Frankenguide.
Finally, and most importantly, ignore most of the advice above and just find your own places to go and do your own things. Traveling is about making it up as you go along. Somehow things always work out, no matter where you go or what you do.
Got questions? I never get tired of talking about Ecuador, so leave it in the comments and I'll do my best to answer it. Happy travels!