Scuba dive with sea lions in the Galapagos. // © 2016 Loreal Shea
Feature image (above): The Andes Mountains rewards climbers with incredible views. // © 2016 Ministry of Tourism of Ecuador
Enclosed by Colombia, Peru and the Pacific Ocean, the entire country of Ecuador is roughly the size of Colorado. Small though it may be, this mighty destination makes the most of its 109,483 square miles. Four sundry regions — the Andean highlands, the Pacific Coast, the Amazon rainforest and the Galapagos Islands — constitute Ecuador, and each offers the full monty of bucket-list-worthy adventures.
In 2013, Loreal Shea underwent two major life events: She began her travel agent career, and she paid a visit to the Galapagos Islands for the first time. The agent for Rudi Steele Travel, Inc. was struck by the region’s natural ecosystem, which includes animals that are not afraid, only curious, of humans — such as blue-footed boobies that performed elaborate mating dances in front of her.
“There are few places in the world to scuba dive where you get this close to the wildlife and feel interaction rather than just observation,” Shea said. “My favorite moment was when I felt a pull on my right foot and turned around to see a surprised sea lion who had been gently nibbling on my fin.”
Pack the SPF: The sun near the equator has incredibly powerful rays; apply sunscreen liberally and often.
Raul Arturo Garcia Gutierrez, CEO of local operator Advantage Travel, has lived in Quito, Ecuador’s capital city, for more than 25 years and can tick off reasons why the country is a top destination, from its perpetual sunshine to its UNESCO-recognized architecture. When seeking adventure, though, Gutierrez packs up and trades in city life for the rainforest.
“In the Amazon, there are flooded places that are perfect to explore with a kayak,” he said. “It is the best way to connect with the nature. The real adventure begins when you decide to do a new activity in a place that it is not home.”
Think Positively: Gutierrez says the right attitude is key for letting the rain-forest do away with problems or stress.
Though her visit to Ecuador in 2000 was meant to last only a week, Amber Laree de Freire fell in love with both the country and an Ecuadorian — so she never left. About 16 years later, Laree de Freire has her hands full as undersecretary for international relations, markets and investments at Ecuador’s Ministry of Tourism, as well as wife to a mountain climbing guide and mother to four children who also love the sport.
“Ecuador is one of the only climbing destinations on the planet where someone can make it up a 20,000-foot mountain in about a week,” she said. “Here, you can climb high during the day and spend the night in lovely colonial haciendas.”
Beginners Welcome: Gentle treks and glacier schools are available for those new to climbing.