From the mangrove-lined, wildlife-rich estuaries of Rio Guayas and the Jambeli Channel to the high altitude paramo of El Cajas to the colonial gem of Cuenca in the Andean highlands, southern Ecuador is a rich and diverse mixture of natural wildlands and cultural treasures, with hidden reminders of ancient inhabitants waiting to be explored. It is an area beautifully suited to Wildland Adventurers who want to veer from the beaten track to discover untrammeled paths filled with wildlife, spectacular landscapes and Cuenca, a city that in spite of being the third largest in Ecuador, maintains the soul of a quaint, colonial village.
2015 pricing: From $1,060 per person, based on group size
Day 1: Manglares-Churute Reserve / Tushipungo / Cuenca
Departing Guayaquil (or Quito) this morning, travel south to the ecological wonderland of Manglares-Chirute Reserve. Protected from development and nearby shrimp-farming, these 100,000 acres of mangrove and tropical dry forest contain a treasure-trove of wildlife, including aquatic birds such as herons, ducks, roseate spoonbills, osprey and horned screamers. Mammals known to inhabit the area include tigrillos (a relative of ocelots), capuchin monkeys, mantled howler monkeys and badgers. Board a boat for a leisurely voyage through the twisting swamplands, quietly observing the rich life all around. Vegetation varies from mangrove to balsa and oak trees, with wild orchids and bromeliads making appearances, allowing a wide distribution of wildlife within the borders of the reserve.
From Manglares-Churute, we travel 2 hours up the Andes cordillera, passing beautiful mountain valleys and lakes. Our destination is the Tushipungo Valley, where we hike into spectacular El Cajas National Park, home to over 200 glacial lakes set amidst rolling paramo grasslands, wild quinoa, fragrant rosemary, and home to an abundance of wildlife such as Andean fox, white-tailed deer, wild llamas, and the elusive spectacled bear, to name just a few species. Andean condors, tanagers, hummingbirds and gray-breasted mountain toucans are just a few species on a very long list of birdlife here. An easy hike circumnavigating a sparkling tarn allows plenty of time to stop with binoculars and cameras to capture the life and spectacular landscape.
From El Cajas, another half hour finds us near the beautiful colonial city of Cuenca, in time for hotel check-in and dinner. Overnight Hacienda Uzhupud [BLD]
Day 2: Cojitambo Inca Ruins / Rose Farm / Hacienda Burgay
Driving northeast this morning, we arrive at the village of Cojitambo, an important spot in Ecuador since pre-Incan times. Enjoy spectacular views of the rolling countryside and stroll through the tiered Inca rock walls and terraces of Cojitambo ruins. Continuing on, we drive to Alta Flor Rose Farm, the only rose farm in Ecuador to receive the German Green Seal, signifying Alta Flor recognizes a goal of improving quality of life for the workers as well as the environment. Climatic and geographical conditions come together to make this area perfect for producing gorgeous, colorful and fragrant roses, sure to inspire the gardner (or romantic!) in all of us! Lunch today is taken at the Hacienda Burgay, dating from 1733 and one of the region’s most honored estates and families. The Hacienda is normally off-limits to visitors, but opening its magnificent doors exclusively for us. A brief tour takes in murals and sculptures treasured by the family through generations. Return to Cuenca after lunch, check into our beautiful hotel, Hotel Santa Lucia. [BLD]
Day 3: Horseback Riding / Colonial City Tour
Following breakfast at your hotel, set out for the Bellavista Equestrian Center, a short drive from Cuenca. Whether you are a seasoned rider or a greenhorn, you will be well-matched by the experts at Bellavista. A local guide accompanies riders on a gentle (or adventurous – depending on your level of expertise!) 2-3 hour ride to a spectacular overlook of the Tarqui Valley and surrounding Andean peaks, passing local villages and lush farmlands enroute. Following lunch, we return to Cuenca for a 3 hour tour of this colonial gem. With a year-round Spring-like climate and timeless Spanish and French architectural influences, Cuenca is a beguiling UNESCO World Heritage Site that feels forgotten in time, inviting a slower pace. Vestiges of ancient Incan trails and ruins still may be found amongst the other architectural charms. Overnight Hotel Santa Lucia. [BLD]
Day 4: Departure to Guayaquil / Quito
Following breakfast, transfer to the Cuenca airport for your return flight to Guayaquil or Quito. [B]