A Madagascar Wildlife Guide: The Best of Madagascar's Animals

Unlike any other country, Madagascar is rousing mix of picturesque landscapes with weird looking upside-down baobabs (when the leaves shed, the branches look like roots, giving an impression of the tree sticking its head into the ground) and a vast community of wildlife species endemic to the region. Almost 90% of these are not found anywhere else in the world. This African island nation that got calved off the continent millions of years ago has truly written its own book on nature, wildlife and evolution. This is a vacation that will be 'different' in every sense of the word, the food, the culture, the people; but more than anywhere else in the world, a local travel expert is recommended who can guide you through this eclectic maze of never-seen-before flora and fauna across its national parks.  Before you plan your trip, here's a virtual tour of the wildlife scenario that has left thousands of curious travelers stunned, amused, dumbfounded, and always thoroughly charmed. LemursThese primates, only found in this island, are possibly the most celebrated species of Madagascar's wildlife inventory. Lemurs look somewhat like a cross between a dog, a cat, and a squirrel; there are nearly 60 subspecies swinging through the jungles today (several of whom are critically endangered), ranging from the pygmy-sized Mouse Lemur to the strapping Indri. Some of the better known lemurs include:Aye-AyeThese nocturnal species of lemurs are probably one of the freakiest looking fellows you will encounter in your wildlife safari here. Unfortunately, because of their scary appearance, they are considered bad omens in the local culture, but in general Aye-Aye's are very gentle and harmless. These essentially tree-dwelling primates look like a cross between a bat and squirrel, with large pointed claws on each of their fingers helping them to scoop out insects from the tree barks.IndriLargest amongst all the lemur species, Indris are almost a meter tall and can be spotted in the Andasibe rain forests of eastern Madagascar. What alienates them from their other lemur cousins and makes them amusing is their high pitched call almost similar to a whale which can be heard up to 3 mile away. Indris usually dwell on tree tops and have powerful legs that propel them from one branch to another.SifakaSimilar to the Indris, Sifakas have strong hind legs that help them move from one branch to another, making them largely arboreal (they like an occasional stint on the ground). They are further classified into the most commonly-seen Golden Crowned Sifaka, Coquerel's Sifaka and the most charming of them, the Diademed Sifaka coated in orange, silver, black and gold. Also known as the "dancing lemurs", these chaps can certainly brighten your day with their kangaroo-like hopping, with arms aloft for maintaining balance. Ring-tailed LemurUnlike other lemurs, the Ring-tailed fellows spend most of their time on the ground. You can easily spot them by their unique cat-like mewing; they are tamer than some of their cousins, but don't be surprised if they climb onto your shoulders in search of food.Mouse LemursConsidered to be the world's tiniest primates (just a little longer than your finger), these nocturnal species, though severely endangered, can be found in select areas across the country, and are characterized by their chirping vocals and jumpy, skittish antics. Mouse Lemurs can be easily spotted through the foliage by their huge eyes that reflect light.  FossasFound only in the forests of Madagascar, the Fossa is the country's largest carnivore (up to 6 feet long), with a strong muscular body and a reddish-brown coat. At first glimpse, it looks like a cat, but its closest relative is actually the mongoose. Fosass are very agile climbers and ambush predators (their main diet? Lemurs!), with an arsenal of sharp claws and strong jaws. TenrecFound in other parts of Africa too (but most diverse in Madagascar with around 30 species), these hedgehog-like mammal insectivore lives in the lowland tropical rainforest in the eastern and northern parts of the country. Tenrecs can be usually characterized by their vestigial tails, black-and-yellow striped coat, and a long pointed snout that helps them poke around in search of insects.Giant Jumping RatAs the name suggests, this weird looking rodent is best known for its leaping abilities that helps it avert predators like the Fossa. Almost the size of rabbits, Giant Jumping Rats have long pointed ears, short fur and large rear feet with thick strong thighs (the prime-movers of their astounding leaps).BirdlifeAs you explore the forests of Madagascar, there's barely a moment when you can't hear the melodic sound of birdlife. Of the region's more than 285 bird species, 115 are entirely endemic and not found anywhere else.CouaPossibly the most popular bird of Madagascar, the beautiful Couas is a proud member of the cuckoo family. All subspecies are known for the featherless blue skin around the eyes, their long luscious tails, and striking bluish-indigo plumage.Long-eared owlEndemic to Madagascar, this nocturnal aerial master-predator is characterized by its brownish facial disc, tufty crown and dark brown ears; easy to spot on guided night jaunts through the forests, because they are also obligingly abnormally large compared to the common owl.Frog speciesApart from its extraordinary mammalian and avian life, Madagascar will amaze you with its vast variety of 300 frog species, 99% of which are endemic. Of the vast variety, the most eminent include:Tomato FrogsNamed after their vibrant orange-red colored skin, Tomato Frogs inhabit the swamps and wetlands. Their dazzlingly bright color is actually a warning to other predators; when threatened, their skin secretes a thick, sticky fluid that is noxious to snakes. Tip: do not touch; this sticky fluid can cause allergic irritation in humans as well.Mantella frogsBewitching, with green, black and yellow skins, Mantellas feed mainly on insects and are not to be messed around with, just like their tomato-colored cousins.ChameleonsAlmost on par with the lemurs in terms of appeal, Chameleons here have evolved into a vast array of dimensions ranging from the enormous Parson's Chameleon (24 inches) to the minuscule Pygmy Stump-tailed Chameleon, smaller than a fingernail. It is believed in local culture that chameleons change their hue according to their emotions rather than for camouflage. These lizard species have an incredible tongue length (2 times the length of their body) that can nail prey (mostly insects) in an eye-blink.InvertebratesMadagascar is acknowledged for its rich insect biodiversity, so let's not ignore these beauties. You will most certainly come across the Comet Moths, largely nocturnal and endemic to Madagascar's eastern rainforest. Look out for a buzzing flash of color, and you will spot its streamer-like tail and huge yellow wing spans (20 cms) marked in brown eye-like patterns. Well, there you have it: when it comes to unique wildlife spotting, no other nation beats Madagascar. Interested? Start planning with a local expert who can lead you through this magical world of things-never-seen.

Africa Safaris: The Best National Parks, Game Reserves and Wildlife across Africa

It doesn’t matter if you’re a curious first-timer or an old safari hand, Africa never fails to amaze. Much of the action circles around the famous national parks/game reserves, where a variety of breathtaking and awe-inspiring wildlife encounters await you, combining the world's wildest landscapes with once-in-a-lifetime experiences.Here’s a list of some of the continent’s premier game parks. From Kenya and Tanzania, to Namibia, South Africa, and Botswana, all these are unique in their own right, whether it’s canoeing past crocodiles, going on gorilla treks or enjoying rare leopard sightings. We reckon the only real question is: where to go first?1. Masai Mara Game Reserve, KenyaThink of Africa, and the Masai Mara is probably the first thing to pop into your head. Endless vistas and intense game viewing makes this reserve arguably the best safari destination in Africa. The wealth of wildlife and the sheer density of certain species like lions, zebra, leopards, Thomson's gazelle, hyena, rhino, hippo and thousands of migrating wildebeest will ensure your days are filled with precious moments.Accommodations range from luxurious camp sites and lodges that offer game drives with experienced and well-informed guides. Apart from the reserve, the whole region is surrounded by numerous Maasai villages where you can experience the simple way of life and survival skills of these hardy warriors.Key Highlight: The Great Wildebeest MigrationThe best time of year is between the months of July and August, carrying on till October. Witness the greatest wildlife show on earth, when the migrating wildebeest and zebra herds arrive from the neighboring Serengeti Park in Tanzania, in search for fresh pasture and drinking holes. Check with a travel expert on the best time to visit, and the finest vantage points for witnessing this astonishing spectacle.2. Etosha National Park, NamibiaCovering a massive 22,000 square kilometers, Etosha National Park is regarded as one of the continent's premier wildlife viewing destinations. Unlike other game reserves, Etosha's magic seems to lie in its ability to bring the animals to you. Just park your 4X4 near the many waterholes and watch the top-shelf fauna - lions, leopards, elephants, Buchell's Zebras, giraffes and the endangered black rhinos - saunter up not in twos but by the hundreds.Apart from the magnificent game viewing of the Big 5, Etosha's essence lies in its enormous salt pan which can stun you with its singular beauty of endless expanse of shimmering white, tinged with olive green. After a good rain, this pan fills up with water, making it teem with flamingos and pelicans, which itself is a sight of beauty. Check with a travel expert on the best time to visit to maximise game-viewing.Key Highlights- Black Rhinos and the colourful birds of the Etosha Saline PanAdding to any enchanting Etosha experience are the abundance of bee-eaters, ostriches, Kori Bustards (considered the heaviest flying bird) and the wheeling martial eagles in this wilderness hub.3. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, UgandaAncient, deep and pristine could describe the forest cover that rises up along the southwestern border of Uganda, aptly christened 'impenetrable' due to its thick foliage of herbs, shrubs and vines; the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is one of the world's oldest complex ecosystems holding a wealth and depth of biodiversity, and is duly acknowledged as a precious natural asset of the country.Elephants, giant forest hogs and numerous types of primates make their home here, but Bwindi's greatest differentiator is that almost half of the remaining population of the critically endangered Mountain Gorillas live here. This World Heritage site is accessible only on foot, thus preserving the forest cover intact, offering travelers unique gorilla experiences in their natural habitat. These gentle giants are granted full freedom of movement and have become habituated to humans.Key Highlights: Mountain GorillasTime stands still in the company of these regal creatures that share a large chunk of our human DNA; just look into a gorillas expressive brown eyes and you'll be a convert forever.4. Serengeti National Park, TanzaniaSpread across 1.5 million hectares of land, the Serengeti National Park is renowned for its astonishing wealth of wildlife, especially the lions, who are everywhere (the Serengeti boasts Africa’s largest population). Leopards, hyenas, cheetahs and jackals are on the hunt here, too, feasting on zebras, buffaloes, gazelles, hartebeests, impalas and more.Tanzania’s premier park is also a perfect destination for bird watching; you can spot over 500 species. And much of the action can be seen near rivers and waterholes – the best place to watch nature unfold. Witness countless hippos, crocodiles, elephants lazing and basking in this natural paradise.Key Highlights: The Annual Great Wildebeest Migration (truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience).The endless plains of the Serengeti National Park happen to boast the oldest eco-system on the planet, and is also the theater for the Wildebeest Migration (check with a travel expert on the optimum time for this). No wonder the Maasai tribe calls it “the place where the land runs on forever.”5. Andasibe National Park, MadagascarCovered with moss, lush forests, peppered with a variety of orchids and dotted with lakes, Andasibe National Park is well known for sheltering 13 diverse species of Lemurs.Standing a meter high and with strange black and white markings, the Indri is the most famous species of lemurs inhabiting this region; you are assured a glimpse of these amusing creatures whose powerful leaps propel them from one branch to another. Unlike other lemurs, the Indris sing in an eerie wailing tune which can be heard up to three kilometers away, a sound you are not likely to forget in a hurry.A trip through Andasibe will get you close to some exquisite reptiles and amphibian species which are endemic to this region, including the enormous Parson's chameleon (above) and the infamous Boa Manditia.Key Highlights: Indigenous species of animals not seen anywhere (and several of them endangered).Bird lovers, take heart: Andasibe is known to have recorded more than 100 avian species and if luck is on your side (a travel expert will hook you up with the best guide/naturalist), you can catch a glimpse of the exotic Madagascar Blue Pigeon, the Coral-Billed Nuthatches, and the Long-eared Owl.6. Ongava Nature Reserve, NamibiaThe air crackles with bird noises and a chorus of lion roars; this is the magic of this African private game reserve neighboring the Etosha National Park, extending over 125 sq miles and reflecting its beauty through a vast array of vegetation and mopane woodlands peculiar to this part of the country.Ongava Nature Reserve has an appreciable population of lions, elephants, giraffes and some rare species of antelopes like the Black-faced Impala; it is also one of the unique places where you have a good probability of spotting both black and white rhinos. To delve more into the wildlife habitats, ask a travel expert in Namibia to take you rhino tracking on foot so you can have fabulous close encounters with these gentle (but skittish) beasts.Key Highlights: Black and White Rhinos, night safaris.Adding more to the uniqueness of this game reserve are the night tours, where you have a favorable chance of watching the big boys on their nocturnal hunts.7. Kibale Forest, UgandaComposed of the loveliest, varied tracts of tropical forest in the country, and interspersed with patches of grasslands, this wildlife park covers an area of 795 square kilometers over various altitudes. Kibale's unique location between the dry terrains and wetter forests makes it home to several vivid species of flora and fauna. Because of its rich biodiversity, it is also home to the largest concentration of primates in the entire continent, of which the chimpanzees have a larger share numbering at around 1450, followed by the red colobus monkey and the vulnerable are rare L'Hoests' Monkeys. Key highlights: ChimpanzeesWhile walks through the forest to spot the chimps and other primates is undoubtedly the park's main draw, you can also spot herds of African elephants roaming freely and other elusive animals like the leopards, buffaloes and bush pigs. Adding to the thrill, for bird lovers, this park has also recorded around 375 bird species.8. Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, BotswanaLocated in the central Botswana, the Makgadikgadi Pans covers approximately 12,000 sq km, making it the largest salt pan on the planet. The area was once a massive lake, but over time it has dried up into a stunning viata of white. For most of the year the area is dry, but the magic happends right after the December - January rains, when it floods and transforms into a lush wetland attracting droves of prey and predator through February and March. This is the theater of the second largest (and not so well known) animal migration in all of Africa, the Great Zebra Migration, an unmissable experience of savage beauty. The region also plays host to an alluring display of thousands of migrant flamingos and other water birds, such as pelicans, spoonbills, waders and storks.Key Highlights: the Great Zebra Migration and Quad BikingThe park is also a roaring playground for quad biking; tear around the salty scapes from your campsite under an endless African night sky.9. Nechisar National Park, EthiopiaSpanning across 514 square kilometers, a trip through the Nechisar National Park will take you over diverse topography ranging from savannah grass and dense bush of the riparian forests to the vast variety of wildlife which makes this place rank among the most scenic national parks in East Africa.Deriving its name from its bleached Savannah grass ("white grass" in the local Amharic language), Nechisar encompasses the Abaya and Chamo lakes which are separated by a narrow ridge called "Bridge of Heaven". Along with striking scenic beauty, what also captivates visitors is the vast variety of wildlife which includes sizeable populations of hippos and crocodiles, particularly in the Lake Chamo area, and an uncountable number of zebras, hyenas and Swayne's Hartebeest (endemic to this region). In the low lying areas where the trail leads to dense forests, you can see the Guereza Monkeys cavorting in the giant trees.Key Highlights: Crocodiles, varied topography, and indigenous bird-life.The park also witnesses a lot of avian activity and is a sanctuary to almost 350 bird species, none more tempting than the Nechissar Nightjar, yet to be seen anywhere else on Earth.10. Hluhluwe Game Reserve, South AfricaSet in the heart of Zululand, Hluhluwe Game Reserve is one of the oldest wildlife sanctuaries in Africa. This is where Zulu kings hunted and implemented the first conservation laws, and is a major go-to place for anyone looking to experience the African Big 5 up close, right after the iconic Kruger, of course: lions, elephants, leopards, buffalo, and rhinoceros that stalk the flourishing savannah. Key Highlights: Rhino Spotting  Among South Africa's largest game reserves, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is one of the best places in the country in which to see the endangered rhino. Due to conservation efforts, the park has now become the largest habitat of white rhinos on the planet. 11. The Kirindy Reserve, MadagascarLocated in the western part of the country, the Kirindy Reserve comprises world's most endangered ecosystems: its dry deciduous forests. This private reserve managed by a Swiss company can awe you with its Giant Baobab trees alone! Kirindy is also well known for housing some exotic species of flora and fauna not found elsewhere and rivaling the best in the country.This protected area is the only place where you have a definite chance of coming across the rare and weird jumping rats, rodents almost the size of rabbits. Also, a recognizable population of Fossa (Madagascar's largest predator) can be found preying over the lemurs.Key Highlights: Fossa and Lemurs.As this region is home to several nocturnal mammals like different species of lemurs, there are specific night tours where you can spot them streaming through the higher branches, a sight that makes Kirindy assuredly one of the non-pareil places of the entire continent.12. Amboseli National Park, KenyaBordering Tanzania in the southeast, Amboseli National Park is popularly known to the Maasai as “salty dust”, due to the dry and dustier nature of the park which attracts large herds of elephants. The park is also home to the Big Five (the African Lion, Black Rhinoceros, African Elephant, leopard and Cape Buffalo), and the comparatively dry eco-system and landscape makes wildlife spotting easier, as animals have less places to hide.Take game drives in customized vehicles with open roofs to explore different habitats, ranging from the dried-up bed of Lake Amboseli, several wetlands with sulphur springs, the savannah, and woodlands; take leisurely nature walks, get insights into the world of trees, flowers, insects, reptiles and birds. You can also visit the local Maasai community who live around the park and experience their authentic culture.Key Highlight: Elephant Spotting, Views of Mt. KilmanjaroThe signature attraction of the park is the sight of hundreds of big-tusked elephants set against the backdrop of Africa’s highest peak – Mt. Kilimanjaro (5895m) - that lords over the southern boundary of the park.13. Tsavo East National Park, KenyaTsavo East is the largest game reserve in Kenya, and also one of the largest in Africa, located mid-way between Nairobi and Mombasa. The reserve is generally flat and offers open savannah with herds of dust-red elephants, rhinos, as well as large prides of Lions.Wildlife is generally not as abundant as in other national parks of Kenya. Most safaris are short and the emphasis is around the area south of the Galana River, near the coast, which makes for a dazzling East African beach and bush vacation.Key Highlights: Tsavo Lions, Yatta PlateauThe region was made famous by the Maneaters of Tsavo, two Lions that killed around 130 people during the construction of the railway line in 1898. Today, you can see their descendants (the large prides of mane-less lions) who call the Tsavo National Park home.Other attractions include the world's longest lava flow – the Yatta Plateau. The reserve is also an ideal destination for exclusive camping and adventurous activities like rock climbing.14. Parc Nacional Volcans, RwandaEditorial Copyrights: /Shutterstock.comComprising of pristine Afro-Montane forests on the steep slopes of the astounding Virungas Mountain range, and home to almost half the population of mountain gorillas in the world, this majestic game reserve is one of the prime tourist nooks of the country which should't be missed. It is one of those rare places in all of Africa that offers exceptional hiking adventures as well as thrilling gorilla-tracking experiences.You will be totally enthralled by its dazzling rainforest cover, the melodic calls of colorful birds and chattering of the rare golden monkeys, but the most exhilarating experience, hands down, is an encounter with a grown Silverback Gorilla, peaceable and tolerant of human presence. Tip: always obey your guide's instructions when around these beasts.Key Highlights: Trekking Adventures and Mountain Gorillas.Apart from these colossal apes, the park is a sanctuary for Spotted Hyenas, elephants, bushbuck, Black-fronted Duiker and more than 170 species of dazzling birds. It lies about two hours drive from the capital city, Kigali, and certainly deserves a place in your African bucket-list experience.15. Gorongosa National Park, MozambiqueSituated at the southernmost end of the Great African Rift Valley, Gorongosa made headlines as one of the premier wildlife destinations when it was gazetted in 1960, rivaling the mighty Serengeti for its rich concentration of wildlife. Gorongosa, unfortunately, also had to face dire consequences of civil war in the country in the 80's and early 1990's, which destroyed its essence and resulted in a massive decline of the wildlife community.However, on the affirmative note, the park has gone through massive rehabilitation work and, thanks to the backing of the US based Carr Foundation, has been successfully restored and reopened to its visitors since 1998.Since its restoration, a large variety of wildlife has been introduced; you are bound to see huge pride of lions and elephant herds who are reasonably habituated to the vehicles; there are small proportions of leopards, buffaloes and varieties of antelopes to be spotted as well.No doubt Gorongosa is gaining momentum towards achieving its past historic glory, and we definitely recommend a visit to this wilderness preserve.16. Okavango Delta Game Reserve, BotswanaOkavango Delta is one of Africa's top safari areas. Dubbed as ‘Africa’s Last Eden’, the reserve has been declared a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is spread over 15,000 sq km of the lush water-wilderness of papyrus swamps, shallow reed-beds and floodplains, and is dotted with a network of waterways that surround two large islands: the iconic Chiefs Island in the west and Mopane Tongue in the east.The reserve boasts a unique landscape ranging from riverine forests and marshlands to savannahs and wetlands flecked with palm islands, all of which make for awe-inspiring vistas. You can also find a wide variety of wildlife from common mammals and birdlife to those that are not often seen elsewhere, such as sitatunga, wild dog, and wattled crane.Key Highlights: Canoe SafariExplore the Delta’s meandering waterways in a Mokoro (traditional canoe), and see the wildlife (especially elephants) at eye level. You chosen travel guide will help you spot the terrapins basking on floating logs, or a fish eagle just perching, watching and waiting.17. Kruger National Park, South AfricaSouth Africa’s iconic Kruger National Park is also one of the oldest and largest parks of the continent. Spanning almost 20,000 sq km, the land is blessed with some of the world’s most vibrant wildlife; chances are highest of seeing Africa’s Big Five and an impressive diversity of other animals like wild dog, giraffes, zebras, hippos, cheetahs, and more than 500 species of birds. And due to vast spaces, self-guided drives are popular. You will also find many campsites that will offer tailor-made tours through dense forests, sweeping grasslands and fertile river systems, all of which teem with wildlife.Apart from wonderful wildlife sightings, the park offers a plethora of adventure activities like multi-day hiking trails and mountain-biking tours. The park is also home to Bushman cave paintings and archaeological sites.Key Highlights: Africa’s FinestThe park’s iconic and flagship stature is due to the diversity of habitats (16 macro eco-zones have been recognized here) that can be found across the wilderness that lie between the Limpopo and the Crocodile rivers.18. Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaIn the far north of Ethiopia lies this magical world of primeval alpine forests, misty peaks, roaring waterfalls and armies of exotic creatures. Simien Mountains National Park is one of the standout destinations which can charm you with its incomparable trekking adventures and enticing wild creatures found nowhere on planet Earth.Apart from its jaw-dropping scenery, this park is also an important stronghold for endemic wildlife and houses the rare Gelada Baboons (which can make your day with their expressive faces and playful antics), and the elusive Ethiopian Wolf which is extremely rare (consider yourself fortunate if you come across them). Another endemic creature of this region is the Walia Ibex, a large animal with impressive, long ridged horns, which is actually a member of the goat family and is usually spotted at the cliff edges.Key Highlights: Trekking Adventures and Gelada Monkeys.A visit to Ethiopia is incomplete without hiking this corner of the country and gazing the marvelous vistas which will remain deeply rooted in memory for years to come. 19. Ngorongoro Crater, TanzaniaThe Ngorongoro Crater is a breathtakingly beautiful setting of vast and striking ethereal blue-green vistas. Volcanic craters form stunning backdrops to some of the most fertile and richest grazing grounds of Africa. As magnificent as the views are from above, the real magic happens when you get down inside and drive among a supreme concentration of wildlife, including the highest density of both lions and overall predators in Africa. A sizeable population of black rhino and some of the largest rare tusker elephants can also be found here. In addition to that, the crater also boasts healthy herds of wildebeest, buffalo and zebra.Key Highlights: Iconic Status, Abundant WildlifeLabeled by UNESCO as World Heritage Site, the crater is one Africa’s prime highlight and the most beautiful natural wildlife safari sites in the world. The world’s largest intact volcanic caldera also exists here. Apart from intense game drives, it is also a great place for trekking excursions; interacting with the local Maasai tribe also provides a great opportunity to understand the local culture.20. Addo Elephant Park, South AfricaThe Addo Elephant National Park’s boundaries extend right down to the coastline east of Port Elizabeth. The park is the best place in Africa to get up-close and personal with over 500 unique elephants (with special brownish skin colour due to the red soil). It is also the third largest national park in South Africa, and the only one to incorporate a marine area into its conservation strategy, taking your 'Big 5' viewing up a notch to 'Big 7' (Southern Right Whales and Great Whites).Key Highlights: Elephants, the 'Big 7' (Whales and Great Whites)Apart from the famed elephants, the park also has a couple of islands where you can find penguin colonies. In addition, check out herds of spotted hyenas, over 400 Cape Buffalos and a healthy rhino population.

Travel to the Galapagos Islands: An Essential Guide

Few destinations rival the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador for up-close encounters with mother nature. Rocky landscapes, often sparse of vegetation but blessed with abundant and unique wildlife, these little gems  are also famed because of the work that Charles Darwin did there, which contributed to his development of the evolution theory.It is a superbly protected and fragile eco-system, and travelers can only enter the boundaries of the Galapagos National Park (about 97% of all the islands, which are uninhabited) if accompanied by an official qualified guide.Here's an essential guide to help you plan your perfect Galapagos adventure.OverviewThe Galápagos archipelago consists of 13 big islands, 6 small islands, and more than 40 islets. Santa Cruz is the most inhabited island; its main town, Puerto Ayora, is a key city in the Galápagos. From here, you can book tours around the islands, plan day trips, and scuba-diving excursions. Santa Cruz is also home to the Darwin Research Station, where you can meet the famed giant tortoise  of the Galapagos. San Cristóbal is the second-most populated island. Several tour boats begin their journeys from its port, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. Isabela is the largest island, but only the third-most populated. It’s also the most popular pit-stop for visitors.There are basically three options when it comes to getting around the Galapagos Islands; land-based tours, an island-hopping tour or an expedition cruise/voyage.To enjoy the best of what the Galápagos have to offer, we strongly recommend exploring the islands by boat. Being on a smaller boat will enable you can to access some of the smaller islands that the larger ships can’t get to. You can take day trips from Puerto Ayora to Santa Fe, Plaza Island, North Seymour, and Bartolomé.When to goThere’s no “bad” time to visit the Galápagos. Due to its location near the Equator, temperatures don’t change drastically. But the timing of your visit will totally depend on what kind of experience you’re looking for. The dry season is from June to November (busiest months for tourism, although some of these months can mean cold waters for swimming and diving), and the wet season is from December to May. What to Pack/CarryThere is no comprehensive packing list that works for everyone, but here are some essentials that one must definitely consider:Clothes: During the day, you will most likely be wearing shorts and a loose comfortable t-shirt or tank top. A hat and a pair of sunglasses are absolutely essentials for protecting your face from the blazing equatorial sun. For the evenings on boats, particularly cruise ships, go a little formal, and a dress shirt a simple sun dress might be a good idea (most cruises don’t follow any sort of dress code; daytime clothes will be fine.)Consider bringing only one or two pairs of light trousers to the Galapagos. The weather is usually warm, but it can't hurt to carry a light sweater or sweatshirt if you intend to do a little night star-gazing. If you plan on partake of hiking activities, we advise you to pack a jacket, preferably a waterproof one that can double as a raincoat, in case it rains.Footwear: Without a doubt, sandals or causal flip-flops are the handiest footwear you can bring to the island. They are perfect for wet landings on the island (off a boat), and also to protect your feet from the harsh volcanic landscape. Leave the heels at home. You might want the protection and support of sturdy closed-toe walking shoes with a durable sole. Though land excursions are generally short and trails generally tame, you will be walking over jagged volcanic rock and other obstacles from time to time.Sunscreen: It may be obvious, but it deserves a mention because it’s so vital. You’re right on the equator, and even though it doesn’t feel too hot, you will fry to a crisp unless you foam up at least 4 to 5 times a day. Hence, we recommend you to bring at least twice as much sunscreen (SPF 45 waterproof sunscreen if possible!) as you think you will need.Swimming & Snorkeling: Carry at least a couple of swimsuits so that you’re not always putting on a still-damp pair. Getting your own snorkel & mask is optional, as you will be able to rent these, or they may be included in your trip costs. If you already possess a pair, carry them; you’ll be spending a lot of time snorkeling (depending on time of year), and you don’t want to have to mess around with an ill-fitting mask.Pack Necessary Medication: While your tour guide will carry first aid kits, you are responsible for carrying your own prescription drugs or any vitamins you regularly take (make sure to fill prescriptions before you travel). A few recommended over-the-counter drugs you might want to carry are pain relievers, motion sickness pills and indigestion tablets.  Also consider bringing sea-sickness medicine, or check and see if your chosen tour cruise has it.What Not to Pack/CarryThe introduction of non-native plant species is considered THE top environmental hazard to the Galápagos Islands, so do not bring any fruits, vegetables, plants or pets of any kind with you. In fact, you have to sign an affidavit swearing that you’re not bringing in any food, animals, seeds, or even unclean camping gear that may have live insects.Book a TourWhen planning a trip to the Galapagos Islands, everyone asks about the boat, many ask about the itinerary, and very few about the guide. And yet, there is perhaps no greater influence on the quality of your Galapagos cruise experience than your guide. Besides, visits to most of the islands aren’t permitted without a naturalist tour guide licensed with the Galapagos National Park. Strict protocol on tourist access is maintained in an effort to protect the natural habitats.Important Tip: The Galápagos Islands are a major tourist destination, so book well in advance. Dive boats, in particular, tend to fill up fast.The next step: Ship or Shore?For many, the most essential decision to make when planning a trip to the Galápagos is whether to take a cruise or visit the islands from a hotel base on land. For those who are prone to seasickness you’re better off staying on land.If you intend to take day trips from Santa Cruz Island to any of the other popular island sites, you will most likely be doing so on a very small boat. On the contrary, if you book a cruise on one of the larger ships, you will be on a boat that is much steadier in rough seas, and most of the travel is done at night, when you’re fast asleep.How to Get ThereWith very rare exceptions, travelers travel by air to the Galápagos Islands. You can board a flight from Quito or Guayaquil to Baltra airport, from where your chosen local guide will take you to Puerto Ayora or Santa Cruz Islands, two of the most popular tourist hubs in the region.Ask your chosen travel operator to book flights through a cruise company (many tours don’t include flights in their package but some do make an exception). Some companies include internal flights in their package, since they have pre-arranged group flight bookings with airline companies to get the best rates.  What to DoWith the many, many islands to cover, it is recommended to take an extended trip so that you can visit them all. Between active volcanoes, tranquil beaches, and exotic wildlife reserves, you definitely don’t want to miss any of it. Also, if your time is limited and you want to see the most popular and sought-after spots first, here is a list of activities to look out for.Visit the Charles Darwin Research StationIf science fascinates you, you’ll certainly want to visit the center and learn all about Darwin’s observations. Take a tour around the center, where staff members are available to answer questions about the islands and the continuing restoration process, particularly in regard to preserving the many species that are exclusive to these islands.Meet the Giant Tortoises (Key Highlight of Ecuador) Holding pride of place as the quintessential symbol of the Galapagos Islands, spotting these magnificent creatures is a must-do for all animal lovers. Most famously seen at: the Charles Darwin Research Center in Santa Cruz or the Galapagos Interpretation Center in San Cristobal.However, the less crowded and more appealing breeding center can be found in Puerto Villamil on Isabela. Here, you can hold a baby tortoise egg and learn about the different types of tortoise endemic to different volcanic areas on the island, each with distinct-shaped shells. One can even see little eggs hatching if they get lucky.Scuba Diving and SnorkelingIf you’re an aquatic enthusiast, suit up to take a peek below the ocean surface; the underwater Utopia can be just as enthralling as the world above it. The Galapagos presents an unbelievable diversity of marine wildlife for activities like scuba diving and snorkeling – a must do, when visiting Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, and Isabela Islands.Your chosen travel experts will take you to the best dive spots on Wolf and Darwin Islands, where you might see hammerhead sharks, whale sharks, eagle rays, large schools of jack fish and much more.  If you go snorkeling, you’ll likely be swimming alongside sea lions and Pacific sea turtles. Spots around Isla Lobos and San Cristobal Island are excellent for snorkeling.Important Tip: Due to challenging conditions, diving and snorkeling is recommended only for those who are already experienced. Beginners must go through crash course demonstrated by experienced diving instructors before entering the waters.Trekking the Sierra Negra Active Volcano Trek over dried lava beds along the rim of one of the archipelago’s active volcanoes around Sierra Negra (world’s second largest crater) on Isabela, the biggest island which also boasts 6 other volcanoes. By far the best trek route around the islands is to follow the dirt trails to Volcano Chico to observe the puffing fumaroles and extraordinary lava formations, or hike longer into the yellow hills of the pungent Sulfur Mines.Explore Bellavista’s Lava Tunnels in the GalapagosExploring the naturally hollowed lava tubes in the Galápagos is an adventure not to miss. Hike through beautiful tunnels, explore the intriguing structures and marvels of mother nature’s work. Learn about the formation of these tunnels (it’s best to explore with a guide). Be sure to bring sturdy shoes as it can be slippery, and some areas may require some crawling due to limited visibility (carry a good flashlight too). There will be water dripping on you from time to time, so carry a rain jacket if that bothers you.Discover the Beaches of the Galapagos IslandsWitness some of the world’s most remarkable beaches surrounded by mangroves, hidden coves and black lava, along with friendly animals like pelicans, iguanas and sea lions frolicking in turquoise blue waters unadulterated by pollutants; you will also find many colorful sand beaches, including powdered white, mixed coral, Pacific black, red, and olive green sand beaches.Here are a few notable mentions:Puerto Villamil (Isabela Island)Located near the Puerto Villamil village, it’s probably the most secluded beach of the islands, away from the hustle-bustle and backed by a lagoon where flamingos and marine iguanas thrive. If solitude is what you seek, spend some time here, enjoy the views of the dry tropical forest and bask in the sun underneath the coconut palms – absolute bliss guaranteed!Gardner Bay Beach (Espanola Island)Allow yourself to be enchanted by Gardener Bay (the oldest beach of the islands) as you enjoy activities like snorkeling and kayaking. Get up-close and personal with sea lions; spot white-tipped reef sharks and countless tropical fish in the turquoise waters. It is also a great beach for bird watchers, particularly famous for pelicans.Red Sand Beaches (Rabida Island)Located south of Santiago, the stunning red rock beach gets its color from the high iron content in the volcanic material, which makes it stand out from the other beaches on the islands. Upon arrival, you will be welcomed by sea lions and marine iguanas lazing in and around the nearby caves. The pink shrimp larva makes the beach a perfect hunting ground for flamingos and other birds like Darwin Finches and the Blue-footed and Nazca Boobies.  Tortuga Bay (Santa Cruz Islands)Have the local guide take you to the white coral sandy beach with good waves, and practice some surfing. The captivating Tortuga Bay beach has both, calm waters and waves of impressive magnitude; paddle alongside playful sea lions, glide above white-tipped sharks, watch blue-footed boobies plummet into the sea; an ideal place for kayaking too!And Finally – The Wildlife of the Galapagos!Galapagos is a natural playground for wildlife exploration. Everything here lives free and is scared of nothing (most important, man has not established himself as a predator) which is why you can get close to all the animals here. There is truly no other place on the planet quite like it. Contact a good travel expert who will guide you through intricacies of this wild and wonderful place. Being the meeting point of three different ocean currents, the marine life is bountiful. And it’s no surprise why these islands fascinated Darwin, leading to one of the world's greatest scientific breakthrough discoveries that changed the way we saw ourselves!

Ecuadorian Food: Best restaurants & places to eat in Quito

Often regarded as the "most beautiful big city in South America", Quito, the capital of Ecuador, is located in a valley cupped between colossal Andean peaks, and was the first of two cities to be declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1978 (the other was Krakow, Poland). The architectural splendors of this city are numerous, of course: the ancient thick-walled, tile-roofed colonial buildings, the museums, the Gothic churches and cathedrals, you can go on and on, but a lesser known and hugely understated attraction of this city is its food, scrumptious dishes worth writing home about. A travel expert in Ecuador would be your best bet in guiding you through the food culture scene of Quito, but here's a little taster to get the saliva flowing.Traveling to a foreign location and not tasting its delicacies is like missing a part of a painting. Expect a fair amount of potatoes and root vegetables; there is a traditional hot sauce to go with it, found on almost every dining table in the city. But the piece de resistance here is pork; there is arguably no better destination that can compete with Quito in lip smacking exotic pork cuisine. Important Tip: If you are a habitual veggie who indulges in meat every only every once in a while, start out easy with the vegetarian offerings; move on slowly to the chunkier non-vegetarian options. If you're a meat lover, well, go nuts.We recommend you include Quito's food culture as part of your larger itinerary through Ecuador (to the Galapagos, the Andes or the Amazon); it is an experience that will rate as high as anything in the country.CevicheYour first reaction is, 'Hey, that's Peruvian.' True, but the Ecuadorians do it in their own style. What differentiates it, and makes it arguably a lot more relishing than its Peruvian counterpart, is that here they prefer marinating it in the original seafood juices, giving it a more soupy feel. It is then garnished with corn nuts and plantain chips, making it one of the appetizing meals the city has to offer.Best had in: Zazu Restaurant, regarded as one of the best fine dining restaurants and the darling of Quito's dining scene. HornadoThis luscious meal consists of a roasted pig cooked whole with an apple or tomato in its mouth and red chilies in the ears, and it is served with tortillas with cheese. The best part of this dish is the sweet juice made from different types of onions and tomatoes, mixed and drizzled over the Hornado. Best had in: Achiote RestaurantLocro de PapasThis is one of the few vegetarian dishes Quito is famous for, a potato based soup with cheese, avocado and cooked with garlic and onions. The Ecuadorians feel this steamy broth tastes the best in cold, rainy weather, but we call it a soup for all seasons. Best had in: Casa Los Geranios where it is served in a small bronze pot on a bed of flaming salt.CanelazoEditorial Copyrights: ar hotel salitreFinally, a tipple. In Ecuadorian culture, no party is complete without pitchers of the spicy Canelazo (also consumed in Colombia, Peru and northern Argentina). It contains rich flavors of cinnamon, sugar, Naranjilla (Ecuadorian citrus fruit) and Puntas (a strong Ecuadorian drink with alcohol content 30%-60% made from sugar cane). When in Ecuador, ditch your usual cocktail, drink like a local and do yourself proud. Best had in: Calle La RondaEditorial Copyrights: /Shutterstock.comThe Street Food of QuitoIt is rightly said that street food is the real fuel of the populace; also, there is also hardly any better way to know a region's cuisine than by hitting up a food stall of mouth watering goodies.Important Tip: Street foods in Quito form a very important highlight of any vacation (almost as much as the architecture), can be very delicious and inexpensive compared to the restaurants, but they can be unhygienic too, and henceforth you should be cautious before venturing forth. Again, the importance of a travel expert here cannot be stressed more.Editorial Copyrights: /Shutterstock.comStreet foods can be found in almost every other corner of the city, but to save time and too much hoofing around. head down to Mercado Central and El Ejido Park. Some of the goods on offer: LlapingachosEditorial Copyrights: Leon SierraRegarded as Ecuador's signature dish, Llapingachos are small orange-yellow colored pancakes made of grated potato, cheese, stuffed with herbs, and served with peanut sauce (those allergic: beware). Usually considered a side dish, they are best had with Hornados, but they can hold their own when served with fried egg, chorizo sausages and avocado.FritadaThis golden crispy meal is a combo of Tortilla (mashed potato cakes) with spiced pork, boiled and fried in its own fat. The perfect on-the-go lunch.HumitasOne of those delectable traditional dishes you should not miss out on. This all-in-one breakfast dish is made with local corn, onions, egg and fresh cheese made from cow's milk, all of it boiled in corn husk. If you ever wish to try this at home, here's a tip: try it with goat's cheese instead.  EmpanadasEven if you happen to be in Ecuador and don't visit Quito, be sure to try the Empanadas, which can be both sweet or savory, depending on your palate. The most common fillings include mushrooms, chorizo, and chicken or beef along with lots of veggies and fresh cheese to taste. Crisp and crunchy on the outside, soft and squishy on the inside, that is the hallmark of a great empanada. To give them variety, Empanadas are known to taste even better when sprinkled with sugar or dipped into Aji hot sauce (an Ecuadorian Tamarillo, aka Tree Tomato sauce). Editorial Copyrights: /Shutterstock.comNow that you know what to look for, get a local expert to customise a food tour for you. After all, when done with all that gorgeous heritage architecture, every traveler's got to eat.

The Amazing Animals of the Galapagos Islands

An archipelago of 18 islands, the Galapagos are situated about 1,000km away from the mainland of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean, easily the most important highlight of the country, attracting travelers in droves to its beautiful landscapes filled with the most easily accessible wildlife in the world (by this we mean really close encounters). That, plus the legend surrounding these islands of being single-handedly responsible for our understanding of where we come from, easily one of the biggest breakthroughs by the scientific community ever, thanks to the painstaking efforts of a young and committed geologist, Charles Darwin (this is also where the phrase 'survival of the fittest' was historically coined), makes it top the list of best things to do in Ecuador. Below are a list of the prominent land, sea and air-borne creatures that you will encounter on an island-hopping trip through the Galapagos. Not much has changed since the HMS Beagle left these islands for the last time in 1836, leaving them pristine and untouched (and we have the redoubtable endeavours of the Ecuadorian conservationists to thank for that). Even today, the number of travelers are restricted, which means you will probably have to book your trip almost a year in advance, through a travel expert that can provide you the best possible experience.  The Reptiles:The Galapagos Tortoises are the most adorable and majestic animals of the island. They have life spans of 200 years (give or take) and are easily the largest tortoises in the world. Having a common ancestor, they spread to different parts of the archilpelago and began to adapt based on available vegetation and landscape, leading to approximately 13 sub-species today. The most visible differences are in the different sizes and shapes of shells and the reptiles themselves; some sub-species even have different diets (all entirely herbivorous, of course). Among the largest islands of Galapago, Isabela Island is home to five different sub-species that have evolved differently on the slopes of five different volcanoes.One of the most remarkable animals on the islands are, undoubtedly, the marine iguanas. It is only in this part of the world that you will find a species of aquatic lizard that considers algae its main food. Usually black or a dark colour, these reptiles can stay under water for an hour (often startling - or charming - snorkellers with their subaquatic foraging) before they have to surface. Clearly this odd diet evolved and adapted due to the lack of nutritious vegetation on land; the iguanas here even have a specialised nasal gland that separates the salt and expels it from the nostrils. A stand-out even among these unique species are the “Christmas Iguanas” (from their red and green appearance) that are found on Española Island. Needless to say, despite their rather fearsome appearance, these creatures are extremely shy, docile, and interested in nothing but algae.Another reptile that can be spotted throughout the islands is the Lava Lizard. It gets its name from its peculiar lava-red neck, is small compared to the iguana (sometimes they grow up to a foot long), very quick on its feet and mostly eats insects; they have adapted and evolved into more than 26 sub-species and counting. The other endemic reptiles scurrying around the landscape are various species of snakes, all completely harmless and shy. Note: the reason for the benign nature of all animals here is they've never had to fear from humans.The Mammals:Hop off a boat at any of the islands, and chances are, you will be greeted by a welcome-committee of happy, barking sea-lions, as friendly and eager to make contact as waggy-tailed dogs. Not a wonder then, that they are a hit with the kids and even adults. The pups being nursed and pampered by their mothers make for an adorable site to see. They can be found throughout the year and the best places to spot them are Bartolome, Isla Lobos, North Seymour and Punta Espinosa. If you happen to be a Puerto Ayora, do make a trip to the fisherman’s dock and see the famous “Pancha”, a sea lion that has been adopted by the local fisherman community. They mostly splash around in the surf, chomping on sardines, but often voyage out 13-15km off the coast for food, and that is where they sometimes run into trouble with Killer Whales and sharks; you can see battle-scars on those that survive these encounters. Dolphins and whales abound here, the most common species being the Humpback and the Bryde’s whales, primarily found in the channel between Isabela and Fernandina Islands, and around the isalnds of Bartomole and Española. Look out for the bottlenose and striped dolphins leaping around everywhere, almost inviting you to jump in and snorkel/swim with them.The Marine Life:One of the best things to do in Galapagos island to snorkel and dive to witness the magic of the marine life that thrives here. Like their land-based counterparts, they are friendly and curious (as friendly and curious as fish can be), completely unafraid of humans, nets and hooks, because their genetic memory has never known of these things. The Galapagos are one of the very few areas of the planet where a snorkeller or scuba diver will encounter the largest fish known to mankind: the gorgeous Whale Shark. These gentle giants, particularly the Galapagos variety, love to have humans swim along with them. If you are one of the lucky ones, we hope you have an underwater camera handy.  There is no shortage of other sharks either, the most common being the White-Tipped Reef Shark; in addition, imagine healthy populations of sea-turtles and rays. The most prominent dive sites are The Devil’s Crown (Floreana Island) and a small channel off Isabel Island which local experts will happily take you to.Among the Rays, there are four main varieties: Golden Cownose Ray, Spotted Eagle Ray, Manta Ray and the rather common Sting Ray. The Sea Turtles found here mainly are seen in shallow waters near the coast (prominently in Devil’s Crown and Bartholomew) and can grow almost as large as the Galapagos Tortoise. In addition to these main features, you can expect a profusion of crabs, lobsters, eels, jellyfish, octopii and many of the usual suspects of a spectacular, untouched marine ecosystem.The Birds:The island has some of the most unique birds in the world that are found only over here. Let us start by focusing on the flightless species that call these islands home. First and foremost are the Galapagos Penguins that are meant to live in Artic weather, but have remarkably adapted to these relatively tropical waters; this particular species of penguins, not seen anywhere else, are the smallest in the world.The Flightless Cormorant are another species that are endemic to the island. The only Cormorant In the world to have lost its ability to fly and also the largest in the world, they can be spotted mostly on the islands of Fernandina and Isabela. Why flightless, you may ask? Because they have no natural predators to escape from (read man, and other indiscriminately added feral animals like cats and dogs).Another favourite among the visitors are the Blue-footed Boobies that happily display their nests in the open like museum artefacts. The chances of you coming across one (or several) is very common; just walk around and carry on, under the casual and unperturbed eye of Mom Booby. Look out for them mostly along the coastline throughout the year. The other sub-species of these are the Nazca Booby and the Red-Footed Booby.A common sight of the Galapagos is, surprisingly (or not; you may cease to be surprised by anything by now), the Greater Flamingo (a name given to the Galapagos Flamingo in particular, more vibrantly colored than its African and Asian counterparts) that can be seen at Floreana Island, Isabela Island, Santiago, Rabida Island and Santa Cruz. Look out for the wonderful Frigatebird (above), known for its notorious reputation of stealing food from other bird species, including other smaller Frigatebirds. They are also known for their unique appearance and are found only on this island.Moving on to birds that fly, the Galapagos Finches are the most interesting. They all came from a common ancestor, have evolved into 13 different species spread all over the island, and are a text-book lesson in adaptation to the environment; the different species, while having many similarities, have entirely different lifestyles and diets. Some eat shrubs and others insects, or whatever is available to them in the region, adapting beak-sizes and shapes to suit function and efficiency. The other prominent birds found here are Mockingbird, the Galapagos Hawk, the Waved Albatross, Short Eared Owl and the Galapagos Dove.Safe to say that the Galapagos Islands are home to some of the most beautiful and unique wildlife that can be seen anywhere in the world. The combination with the remote and spectacularly unspoiled location makes it a once-in-a-lifetime must for any traveler. If you wish to know more, you can get started with planning your trip almost right away.

Top 10 Things to do in Ecuador

The Republic of Ecuador may be rather small in size but it has it all: to begin with, 10% of the plant species of the entire world, and more than 6000 species of animals, a lot of them indigenous (and we are not talking just the Galapagos). From volcanic mountains to golden beaches, Andean peaks to the Amazon rainforest, this place is quickly making its way to the top of every adventure-loving family’s bucket list.Here are just 10 things that you must do, see, explore and experience in Ecuador. That is just the beginning; worlds open up when you actually get there, and a great travel expert will go a long way in showing you sights and attractions that don't always make the lists. 1) Explore The Galapagos Islands:Situated in the Pacific Ocean, the Galapagos are a volcanic archipelago of 18 wonder-filled islands, roughly 2.5 hours flying time from Quito via Guayaquil. No trip to Ecuador, ideally, should be complete without exploring these beautiful islands, however do note that there are tons more things to see in the eastern interiors, and very often a Galapagos trip is a stand-alone (that's all you may have time for). It is home to some unique landscapes that include volcanic black barren mountainous terrains and also white sand beaches with the brightest blue clear water. Primarily it's the wildlife that attracts visitors of course, from sea lions, marine iguanas, penguins, lava lizards, dwarf whales, and that magnificent lumbering ancient Giant Tortoise; there's literally wildlife at every turn of the head. And that's just the land and sea creatures. It is also paradise for bird lovers, being home to over 100 species, most of them unique (and not to mention, delightfully quaint). Here, you can spot flamingos, the famous Darwin Finches, Galapagos Rails, bobolinks, the adorable Blue-footed Boobies, and barn owls etc, just to name a few. Diving and snorkeling around the islands to observe the thriving marine life is strongly recommended. Check the best time to go to get the best of both, land-based explorations as well as some great snorkeling and diving. 2) Stay In The Cloud Forest:A trip to the Cloud Forest of Mindo, an oft-overlooked highlight of Ecuador, is truly an escape into nature. Known for its unbelievably lush greenery, it is situated high up in the magnificent Andean ranges and covers an inordinately large area of the country (not to be mistaken with rainforests, which occur lower down). The forest is moist, green and receives heavy rainfall during the monsoon months (usually from January to May); expect thundering waterfalls, fast-flowing rivers and streams, and gorgeous swollen lakes. The best way to experience these wonders, of course, is by staying in the thick of it, at the many lodge facilities (from basic to luxury) that are available here.  It is also home to number of species of plants, of which orchids and rascadera are found in abundance. Rascadera is a plant with enormous leaves, also affectionately known as “elephants ears”, large enough to be used as umbrellas by the locals. If the great, wild outdoors appeal to you, then look no further.3) Shop At Otavalo Market:The city of Otavalo, situated in the shadow of the extinct Imbabura volcano, is mainly known for its eclectic market. The place comes to life on Saturdays, starting as early as 6AM, so plan your day-trip from Quito accordingly (1.5 hrs by road). This historic market has been of great significance for over a hundred years as the main place place of trade and business for the various indigenous tribes that live in and around the city. It used to focus on farm produce and equipment once upon a time; nothing so boring these days. Today the main attractions are local handicrafts: silver jewellery, woollen shawls, wooden carvings, and the ubiquitos Panama hat; yes, these are made in Ecuador. (You will also come across multiple animal markets that sell pigs, chickens, llamas and rabbits, harking back to days of yore.) 4) Visit Quito's Old Town:The capital of Ecuador, Quito (a UNESCO Heritage Site, all of it), was established by the Spanish on the ruins of the Inca Empire in the 16th century. Over the years, the city has managed to maintain most of its historic architecture, culture, and way of life. Even today, a stroll through the streets of the Old Town full of numerous churches, cathedrals and monasteries will take you back in time. Important as it is, it is relatively small, perched on the eastern slope of the Pichincha Volcano, and can be covered within a day with a bit of energetic walking. Don't miss the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, also known as the “Golden Church”; the entire interior of the church is spectacularly decorated using gold leaf and wood carvings, doing complete justice to its nick-name. Editorial credit:  / Shutterstock.comVisit the Mercado Central (the main marketplace famous for local food and drinks), El Peneccilo (a statue of the Virgen de Quito, with a breathtaking view of the city), and the Covento San Francisco (one of the largest churches in Ecuador, with over 20 chapels). Once done with the churches and museums, go for a walk down La Ronda where the locals play live music in the narrow streets outside the multiple bars; a perfect place to relax, people-watch and kill time. 5) Hike The Quilotoa Loop:The Quilotoa Loop has become increasingly popular among hikers and trekkers. The beautiful area spread over 200 km does has not have any official routes and can be covered by anyone with just a little planning and research. The best way to explore Quilotoa would be to start your hike from Latacunga in the south and go all the way to the crater lake at Quilotoa (above). The entire stretch can be covered in two days, or you can even take up to two weeks (the flexibility of this terrain is one of its best perks). Distances between villages is around 15km; to break the monoty of a hike, you can even rent a motorcycle. There are many hostels and inns with breakfast and dinner facilities, and they even pack lunch boxes on request. The hike, apart from the magnificent views, is not short of its attractions; will find many local markets, and be able interact with the indigenous people living their life as they have been for centuries. 6) Visit Mita del Mundo:Take a trip to the Centre of the Earth. Situated around 30km to the north of Quito is the Mita Del Mundo Monument, which marks the equator and, well - the centre of the earth. The monument was constructed based on calculations done by the French explorer Charles-Marie de La Comdamine and his team in the year 1736. The yellow line represents the line that divides the northern and the southern hemispheres, aka the equator (for which the country is named after, naturally). Check out live demonstrations of the Coriolis Force (for those interested in the wonders and vagaries of our planet's rotation on its axis). In recent times, it was found that the actual equator is a little ways north of the monument, but it still makes this a must-visit place. 7) Hot Spring Therapy At Baños:Baños de Agua Santa which translates as the "Bath of Sacred Waters", and popularly known as Baños, is a town situated on the foothills of the Tungurahua Volcano. The town is known for its many waterfalls, dense green plantations, and also often referred to as the "Gateway to the Amazon". Apart from the natural beauty, what makes it stand out are the many naturally formed hot springs (hence Baños ) rich in mineral content, and perfect for a relaxing dip. Baños has also become popular for adventure sports like river rafting (down the Rio Pastaza), rock climbing and hiking.8) Surf at Montañita Beach:Editorial credit:  / Shutterstock.comMontañita is place to be for anyone looking to have a good time by the beach. The golden coast is claimed to be one of the best in Latin America and has some of the most challenging waves, making it the perfect turf to surf. The town is known to be quite laidback, compared to the rest of Ecuador which is quite conservative of its customs. 9) Trek Cotopaxi Summit:This volcanic range can be seen from anywhere in Quito, and the Cotopaxi National Park of the same name is around 55km from here, definitely a must-visit. It is the second largest mountain in Ecuador and one of the highest volcanoes in the world at 19,600 ft. It is generally considered to be an easy climb which can get a little tricky and technical in parts, nothing a good guide cannot get you around and over.Luckily, the summit has the highest number of clear days, and can be attempted throughout the year (the best months being June and July). This trek will take a couple of days, but is something that every adventurous traveler must experience in Ecuador.10) Cruise The Amazon:The Amazon is the largest remaining tropical rainforest in the world today, best known for its huge diversity of flora and fauna, and Ecuador own 2% of its overall area. It is here that you will find a monkey that is small enough to fit on your palm and spiders that eat birds. Everything here is truly exotic, from the birds, animals, plants, and even the people; the basin is home to a number of indigenous tribes that have been living in isolation for more than thousands of years, and are protected by Ecuador’s constitution. There are many national parks that have been established inside the forest, making one-day trips to the Amazon easy and convenient, but the best way to explore the river basin, hands down, is by cruising it on a riverboat. There are a number of options for cruise operators and itineraries (they range from between 2-3 days and going up to 12 days). Your travel expert will find and tailor the right one for you.There you go; you're ready with enough information, if you so desire, to start planning your customised Ecuador vacation. Like we said, the number of things to do and places to go will multiply manifold when you actually get there, but this is as good as any a place to start.