Ecuador in the Spotlight



There is so much to love about Ecuador! Did you know Ecuador is the 9th most biodiverse country in the world? It can be divided into four primary and unique geographic regions. These are the coastal lowlands near the Pacific Ocean, the mountain highlands in the Andes Mountains, the eastern jungle in the Amazon basin, and the Galápagos Islands. There are so many great areas to explore!

Written by Dianne Sivulka, creator and owner of Travel on Purpose.
This visit to Ecuador took place in April 2021. She was joined by her sister-in-law, Jelena Sivulka.

I recently returned from my first trip to Ecuador! It was fantastic and I can't wait to share all that we saw and experienced. When we were planning the trip, it was hard to narrow down the many choices and decide where we would go. Having only seven days to explore, we decided to remain relatively close to the capital, Quito. This made sense because this is the area where the do-good organizations are located. A visit to the Amazon and the Galapagos would have to wait for a future visit!

Getting to Know Quito

Illa Experience Hotel
Choosing a hotel is always an important detail in trip planning. I was glad to find Illa Experience Hotel right in the center of the historic district of Quito.

Not only did it check all the boxes on location and luxury, but they also have a unique program highlighting local artisans. We had the pleasure of meeting Olga, a hatmaker. She has been making hats since she was eight years old. She grew up in a town high in the Andes Mountains called Cuenta. This is where her mother taught her the craft of making "Panama hats" from toquilla reeds.

The reeds grow in coastal waters, where they are harvested and dried out. After being cooked twice, they are ready to weave in a circular direction to create beautiful hats. The thinner the reed, the longer the process, and the more expensive the hat. Olga told us that she typically works on hats 5-6 hours per day. If she is using thicker reeds, she can complete a hat in one day. If she uses very thin reeds, it will take her 3-5 days to finish a hat. Today Olga and her family live in Quito, where they have their own hat shop just a few blocks from Illa Experience.

Olga is just one artisan that Illa Experience showcases. If you're visiting Quito and staying at Illa Experience, be sure and inquire in advance about what artisans you might have the chance to meet.

Plaza Grande
One of the places in Quito we enjoyed visiting was Plaza Grande. This wide-open gathering place is a perfect spot to people-watch. Instead of seeing a host of tourists like ourselves, we saw ordinary Ecuadorians enjoying the sunshine and each other. Children were running about and men sat across tables from each other and played games. The center of the square is marked with an independence monument and several fountains. The perimeter of the square is home to several stately and historic buildings. The Carondelet Palace was built in 1801 and houses government offices and presidential quarters. The Gallito Cathedral sits on another side.

Basilica del Voto Nacional
The most famous historic building in Quito, the Basilica del Voto Nacional, is a must for every visit to the city.  This church was built in the 19th-century and features ornate neo-Gothic styling. A climb up it's towers provides spectacular city views. This church also has beautiful stained-glass windows and animal carvings inspired by the Galapagos Islands.

A Perfect Dinner Spot
We loved Vista Hermosa in between Plaza Grande and the Basilica.  The empanada sampler plate and sangria were the perfect early dinner choice. But what people really come to Vista Hermosa for is the 360-degree view from the rooftop.

Mercado Artesanal La Mariscal
We were excited to shop for traditional handicrafts and delighted to discover an outdoor market just 10 minutes by car from the center - Mercado Artesanal La Mariscal. The covered market was lively and fun. Shop owners were very willing to haggle on prices and had a spirited and joyful approach to their work. We loved seeing all the Ecuadorian textiles, wood items, jewelry, and clothing. We found some great treasures to take home. Alpaca wool blankets, leather bags, hand-painted art, nativities and scarfs were among our favorite finds.

A Visit to the Equator - both of them!
Yes, you read that right! There are two equators that tourists can visit. The more popular one is called Mitad Del Mundo. It is located on the original equator site when an expedition in 1736 pinpointed the spot. The problem was that they were off by a couple of hundred yards. This was discovered many years later when accurate GPS systems became available. But it was too late to move the official site because they had already built the gigantic monument on the incorrect equator.
Then another museum was built on the accurate site of the equator. This one is called Museo Intinan. We spent about an hour taking the guided tour and participating in a few equator tricks! I say tricks because their validity is in question. Water swirling right or left due to the Coriolis Effect, balancing an egg on a nail, and walking a straight line with our eyes closed were the main activities. Regardless of their soundness, we enjoyed the interactive, hands-on museum and the fun of it all.

Then we headed out of the city for some fun in God's creation! Mindo was a perfect spot since it's just a short 2-hour drive from Quito. Mindo is a cloud forest and well-known for a plethora of outdoor activities, especially bird watching. In case you're curious, a cloud forest is like a rain forest, except that they are usually found at higher elevations and tend to have cooler temperatures.  Mindo is a small town with eco-lodges and lots of tourism. We crammed in as many activities as we could into three days and loved every minute of our visit!
With so many eco-lodges to choose from, it was hard to make a selection, but I was very pleased with Casa Divina. This lodge has a gorgeous wooded main building with surrounding bungalows just outside of town. We arrived in the afternoon with just enough time to unpack, rest for a short period, and  head to the lodge for dinner. Our three-course dinner was delicious! Looking back on our entire stay in Ecuador, we both commented on how good the meals at Casa Divina were. Each dinner started with a made-from-scratch soup, followed by the main entrée of fish or pasta, and finally dessert. As we were the only guests staying at the time, we didn't order from a menu but were served a Chef's Special each evening.


A Night Walk

After dinner, we headed out with Jorge for a night walk to discover all the creepy, crawly things that live in the jungle. With rubber boots on our feet (which were provided) and flashlights in hand, we observed frogs, snakes, and spiders. We're not particularly fond of any of these things, but it was interesting to see the hidden life that was all around us.
Then it was off to bed for our early morning that was quickly approaching!


Bird Watching

The following day we met our bird-watching guide in front of the lodge at 5 am. He greeted us with a large carafe of coffee and a picnic breakfast that we would be enjoying a little later. It reminded me of being on safari in Africa. We drove to a trailhead, where we met two more guides. After a cup of coffee, we put on our boots, turned on our flashlights and made our way through cow pastures, across a river, and up into the forest in the dark. It felt like a grand adventure! We literally watched the sun come up!


Then we arrived at the viewing spot to see the Andean Cock of the Rock, an extraordinary red-headed bird. We also went to another area where we could see more birds and large numbers of hummingbirds. 

Horseback Riding & A Coffee Tour

Then we were off to the next activity, horseback riding. From there, we went back to town for the coffee tour, learning about the whole process of coffee from plant to cup. We were even able to roast, brew, and drink our creation.


Lunch & A Chocolate Tour

Time for lunch and we were hungry! We picked a small café in town and ordered traditional fare of chicken, rice and beans. After lunch, we chocolate shop in Mindo that conducts tours every hour. We began with a cup of hot chocolate and then learned the process from the cacao bean to a chocolate bar. The tour ended with tasting a sample of 12 different types of chocolate.


Back to Casa Divina

After a nice hot shower, we spent the afternoon relaxing, reading, napping, and awaiting dinner. As you can imagine, we didn't stay up late.

Rain Forest Hiking

The following day we hiked over to the Teleférico, about a 10-minute walk from Casa Divina. We rode the chairlift (a traditional mountain lift) up to the Tarabita, which connects to many hiking trails and waterfalls. The Tarabita is more like a metal box on a cable than a chairlift. The views were incredible, and we had time to explore various trails and see three waterfalls.
And just like that our time in Mindo had come to an end and it was time to pack up and head back to Quito. We loved all the activities in this outdoor tourism mecca! On a future visit, I hope to try out the zipline and river tubing.


The Do-Good Organizations

And now for the best part of all! Connecting with organizations doing good work is a favorite part of travel. Not only does it provide insight into life beyond the touristy hot spots, but it also creates a compassionate connection between the traveler and the community.

Below are the organizations that we spent time with while on our visit. They were each introduced to us through mutual contacts. Seeing their work first-hand, getting to know the people who work there, and seeing the impact they are making in their communities was inspiring. Future Travel on Purpose trips will have the opportunity to pair up with one of these organizations and learn more about their work.

Pan de Vida
Located in inner-city Quito, Pan de Vida is working with families and children who are living below the poverty line. Pan de Vida brings hope through hunger relief, education, health initiatives, entrepreneurship, shelter and emergency relief. They believe that everyone has value, talent and the potential to serve others. This Christ-centered ministry is meeting many needs in the community.

Extreme Response
Also located in the inner-city of Quito, near the dump (which is where the organization began), Extreme Response is meeting the needs of the most vulnerable. Their Dream Center provides educational support, nutritious meals, mentoring, trauma care, basic life skills, and extra-curricular activities. They demonstrate the love of Christ and share opportunities for lasting life change and hope.

Hacienda El Refugio in partnership with One Collective
Located about 45 minutes outside of Quito, Hacienda El Refugio is a retreat center on 300 acres of private property. Their mission is facilitating a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ through nature and outdoor adventure.

We were able to spend three lovely days on campus, enjoying the hiking trails, tasty meals, and meeting with staff. Hacienda El Refugio is truly making a difference in the country as they provide a place for people of all ages to experience God through peaceful opportunities and meaningful programming.

One Collective is a global non-profit that works in communities around the world and is passionate about making sure no one is invisible, and everyone has access to food, freedom, and forgiveness. Following Jesus - they bring people together to help the oppressed so that lives and communities can be transformed.


Interested in Visiting Ecuador?


Come with us! Or let us plan your customized trip! Our visit to Ecuador barely scratched the surface, and we can't wait to get back. Reach out and let us know if you're thinking of visiting the Galápagos Islands or any other part of the country and would like to have our help with that. In addition, we'd love to pair you up with a do-good organization so you can make that important connection. Check on the Travel with Us page for upcoming group tours to Ecuador.

Written by Dianne Sivulka, creator and owner of Travel on Purpose.

This visit to Ecuador took place in April 2021. She was joined by her sister-in-law, Jelena Sivulka.