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BEST TIME TO GO: May to December is the cool dry season in Quito; more tropical, Guayaquil’s coolest months are June through September

FUN-FACT: There are 13 main islands, plus three smaller ones and over 100 islets in the Galapagos Archipelago; only five are populated—Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Floreana, Isabela and Baltra

GETTING THERE:  Delta flies from Atlanta to Quito

ENTRY DOCUMENTS: Valid passport

CURRENCY: U.S. dollar

MUST-TRY LOCAL FOOD: The coastal region is known for ceviche, a cold concoction of fish, conch and/or shrimp marinated in lime juice and seasonings, while the common highland delicacy is cuy (roast guinea pig)—hard to find in restaurants but a common street food. Llapingachos, delicious potato and cheese patties, are served all over

BEST BUYS: Ecuador is the homeland of the original Panama hat, with Cuenca the traditional center for those “super fino” sombreros. Ortega and Sons is the renowned hat-maker, with shops in Cuenca and Quito

INFORMATION PLEASE: Ecuador Ministry of Tourism—ecuador.travel


Ecuador made its way onto Lonely Planet’s “Top 10 Countries” picks for 2013, pointing to the great expectations for the new railway network that opens this year. One new track will link the Pacific port of Guayaquil with Quito, Ecuador’s capital sitting nearly two miles high and almost directly on the equator. Actually, Quito also has a brand-new airport, but what’s of newest importance in the capital is what is historic: the gloriously restored Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Once the northern capital of the Inca Empire and often called the “Florence of the Americas,” handsome Quito is above all a rich repository of religious art and architecture. The capital’s most impressive treasures are La Compania Church and the San Francisco Cathedral, the first grand spiritual fortresses on the continent. Further proof of Quito’s artistic accomplishments through the ages is on view in the rich collections of the Museo Nacional del Banco Central, while Ecuador’s centuries of artistic excellence are expressed today in its fine traditional crafts—weavings and baskets, pottery and musical instruments—all perfectly highlighted by the Museo Mindalae (and its gift shop). Modern art is no less important. Best known is artist Oswaldo Guayasamin, whose work and personal collection are gathered in the Fundacion Guayasamin and nearby Capilla del Hombre. “New Town” Quito is home to fine restaurants with a passion for Nueva Latina cuisine, as well as many of the city’s biggest and best hotels, plus those in boutique-style such as the modern new Nu House and beautifully renovated Cafe Cultura.

From Quito, it is easy to head for the hills: whisking to breathtaking heights on the Teleferico aerial tram, dining or overnighting at Hacienda Rumiloma’s hillside retreat, driving up into the highlands for Indian market days—Otavalo the most famous—and staying in totally enchanting highland inns. Colonial Cuenca, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been charming visitors since the 16th century, and more recent visitors are finding the El Mindo region offers world-class birding, archaeological discovery, great hiking and on its own cloud-forest reserve, the super-luxe new Mashpi Lodge. Of course, it’s common knowledge that Ecuador’s prime attraction is that “holy ground” for nature lovers, the Galapagos Islands.