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Three trips in one on a whirlwind tour of Ecuador

CAITLIN E. O\u2019CONNER | Times A scenic four-hour drive through the Andes takes you from Quito to Tena on the edge of the Amazon.
Published Jul. 19, 2018

"Why Ecuador?"

I was asked that at least a dozen times when I told folks I had booked a short trip to the South American country.

At the time, the answer was that my husband, who has an Indian passport, didn't need a visa to visit Ecuador and we found a deal via Groupon for an exotic-sounding five-day "Amazon Express" tour.

By the end of the trip, I was asking: "Why doesn't everyone go to Ecuador?"

Traveling to Ecuador was budget friendly, relatively easy and so varied that it was almost three trips in one.

On our whirlwind tour, we stood on the equator, wound our way through the Andes mountains, hiked in the Amazon rainforest and relaxed in thermal pools fed by volcanic hot springs. And we didn't even hit the country's famed Galápagos Islands or beaches.

We opted for this five-day (really closer to four) option rather than pricier trips to the Galápagos as the Groupon started at $699 a person, all-inclusive, for flights, hotels, meals and guided tour. We paid a little more for a faster flight directly from Fort Lauderdale to Quito — a flight shorter and cheaper than a recent visit to my sister in California.

Your dollars will go further here, too. Since 2000, Ecuador's official currency is the U.S. dollar, so no conversion is necessary. It made souvenir shopping and paying off bar tabs nice and easy, and the modest prices all around didn't hurt either.

History in Quito

We landed late on a Friday night in Quito, the world's second-highest capital city at about 9,400 feet up in the Andes mountains. The night arrival was a perfect reason to go right to bed and adjust to the altitude, which can make you a little woozy coming from Tampa Bay, where the average elevation is in the low double digits.

Quito was among the U.N.'s first designated World Heritage sites for "the best-preserved, least altered historic centre in Latin America." We're already planning another trip to more fully explore this picturesque city center the Spanish built in the 1500s.

This time, it was but a glimpse as we jetted off to the city outskirts and Mitad del Mundo or "the Middle of the World," a monument to the 1736 French expedition that plotted the exact location of the equator there. The equator, in case you never made this connection, gives Ecuador its name.

Mitad del Mundo features a bright yellow streak marking the equatorial line for all your hemisphere-straddling photo needs as well as a stunning backdrop of volcanoes.

Scattered among the many shops are mini museums where you can sample craft beer or chocolate as it is being made. The central monument houses a full-fledged museum with floors of displays about Ecuador's indigenous peoples as well as the science of the equator. Spoiler alert: The water doesn't flush straight down.

Adventure in Amazon

A scenic four-hour drive through the Andes takes you from Quito to Tena, a last breath of civilization on the edge of the rainforest.

Our accommodations, however, were not in Tena, and getting there was itself something of an Amazonian adventure. Our bus drove another 45 minutes before parking at a boat launch on the Arajuno river. Another 25 minutes by motored canoe upriver brought us to our eco lodge, named Itamandi. Your other option is a few miles' walk through the jungle.

There's not a lick of cellphone service or Wi-Fi out here, nor is there AC, hot water or electrical outlets in most rooms. There is, however, a pool and a full-service bar. If you're looking to unplug, there's no place like the Amazon.

You may have to dodge a few tarantulas, snakes or the occasional bat sneaking into your room. (Really. It happened to us twice.)

The lodge, which prides itself on sustainability, offers a number of adventurous excursions with a local guide assisting, including parrot watching, informative rainforest hikes at day and night, tubing on the river and a visit to a local Quechua village. On the last one, you'll learn about life in the Amazon and be offered a smorgasbord of local foods, from fermented guayusa tea to roasted beetle larvae. I was up for plenty of other adventures, but took a pass on the bugs.

Relaxing in Papallacta

Relaxation was the name of the game at our final destination in Ecuador: Papallacta. About 45 minutes from the international airport or about an hour from Quito proper, Papallacta is situated some breath-stealing 12,000 feet above sea level.

Here the country's fourth-highest mountain, Antisana volcano, heats hot springs that feed thermal pools throughout the city.

At the Hotel Termas de Papallacta resort, situated in a valley at the end of a quiet dead-end road, heated pools are literally steps from the rooms. Some steps farther, there's also a spa open to the public for treatments like massages ($50 and up for an hour; hotel guests get a discount), facials or even a chocolate wrap.

If you were missing the Amazon hikes, there's also a pretty good one here that goes up the mountainside to catch a glimpse of nearby snow-capped peaks, and it's worth getting out of the resort for a bit to try the local specialty, trout, on the road that leads to the resort.

But mostly, at the end of such a whirlwind adventure, it was nice to just relax.

Contact Caitlin E. O'Conner at coconner@tampabay.com. Follow @CaitOConner.

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