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FEATURED DESTINATION: Ecuador & Galapagos

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Ecuador! Endless Natural Beauty, Rich and Welcoming Culture

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Ecuador makes it easy to imagine that you've stepped into the center of the earth. From the mainland to the remote Galápagos Islands, it is a primeval paradise where four natural environments harbor some 50 ecosystems, several of which have been named Biodiversity Hotspots by Conservation International. By many accounts, it is the most biodiverse country in the world per square mile. Pacific waters lap at the coast as if offering up primordial creatures. Soaring volcanic peaks and vast highlands caress the skies. Misty cloud forests and river basins are cloaked in green. The mighty Amazon rainforest boasts countless acres of unspoiled wilderness.

If you're still not convinced that visiting Ecuador is like stepping into middle earth, then consider that the equator runs through here like a spine. Locals are more likely to call this imaginary line la mitad del mundo, or the "middle of the world," so they don't confuse it with the name of their country. Whatever you choose to call it, you're sure to agree it lies at the center of a remarkable and breathtaking place.

Ecuador makes for a stunning playground for the nature lover and a fascinating repository for the culture seeker. The countryside is dotted with countless villages brimming with charm, unaffected by the passage of time. All told, there is something for everyone here: adventure seekers, eco-tourists, culture and history buffs, inquisitive families and active honeymooners, watersports enthusiasts, and anyone who simply loves taking in the great outdoors.

Explore Stunning and Historic Cultural Capitals

Ecuador! Endless Natural Beauty, Rich and Welcoming CultureThe country's capital, Quito, is the second highest capital in the world (9,350 feet) and one of South America's most authentic cities. Since the 1970s, it has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for boasting the best preserved historic center on the continent. Here, you can literally walk through Ecuador's rich history. A stroll through the 16th-century old town reveals why this was one of the first two cities (along with Krakow, Poland) to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. The past is palpable here along its cobbled streets lined with pastel houses, grand colonial-era buildings, the Presidential and Archbishop's palaces, and the cathedrals around Independence Plaza.

While Quito is Ecuador's political capital, the busy port city of Guayaquil is in many ways its economic one. Warmed by Pacific breezes, Guayaquil has surely come into its own in recent years and shaken off its reputation as a mere way station for those flying on to the Galápagos Islands. Its riverside development, Malecón 2000, brims with shops, restaurants, and monuments. The Crystal Palace and Neo-Gothic Cathedral show off its architectural muscle. And the Parque Centenario and Garden of Malecón demonstrate the city's commitment to green spaces.

In Ecuador's "second city" of Cuenca, you just might hear a familiar language as you explore its cobbled streets and plazas: English. That's because more than 6,000 American retirees have embraced the simple life here amidst the clean air of the Andes. You're sure to embrace it, too, as you admire its stunning colonial architecture and wrought-iron balconies bedecked with flowers.

Discover a Storied Culture Connected to the Earth

Thrilling as it is to explore this trio of cities, Ecuador's culture revolves around its natural world, too. The passions of the people are on full display along the quiet routes that connect urban centers. Indigenous people in colorful clothes and fedoras walk to the market on these tranquil back roads, much as they have for countless generations. Farmers from cocoa plantations deliver their crops in modest pickups. Orchid farmers drive their delicate exports to Guayaquil. Even native weavers keep their connection to the earth alive. You can witness all of these traditions with Gate 1 Travel as we introduce you to people who are proud to conserve their way of life.

Amidst this rural beauty, Otavalo – the heart of Imbabura province and surrounded by a trio of volcanoes – hosts what is perhaps the largest traditional market in South America. On its busiest days, the market swallows almost one-third of the city, centered in the bustling Plaza de los Ponchos. Here, Otavaleños in traditional dress sell all manner of textiles, jewelry, leather, pottery, clothing, carvings, and more.

Otavalo is a common stop on the way to the Amazon. Lucky for us, two amazing stops through spectacular scenery mark our progress. The highland city of Cotacachi, famous for its oversized black leather hats, earned a medal from UNESCO for its remarkable 100% literacy rate. And Papallacta overflows with spas and soothing thermal springs. It's a relief to soak in the baths here after a day of browsing market stalls and exploring astonishing highland beauty.

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All prices are per person based on twin occupancy. Prices are valid as of June 19, 2014 and subject to change without notice. Book by July 3, 2014. Not valid on existing reservations.