Despite being one of the smallest countries in South America, Ecuador offers truly adventurous family holidays, from the heady biodiversity of the Galapagos Islands with their white-sand beaches and unique animal life – spark for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution – to the colonial cities of Quito and Cuenca.
Located at zero latitude and known locally as “the land of four worlds”, Ecuador’s distinct regions offer natural wonders to widen the eyes of any young ecologist, whether it be the snow-capped mountains of the Andes, the Amazon Basin or the spectacular cloud forests of the Pacific coastline.
Things to do with kids in Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands
Hit the capital Quito for Spanish colonial splendour and a newly renovated historic centre (UNESCO World Heritage listed) with one of South America’s oldest cathedrals and plenty of museums, restaurants and shops. Then head 26km north of Quito to the equator monument, La Mitad del Mundo or ‘Middle of the World’, where you and the kids can make the stuff of which family holiday memories are made by standing with one foot in each hemisphere.
Discover the traditional market town of Otavalo just under 100km northeast of Quito. Test your bargaining skills at Ecuador’s most famous market in the aptly named Plaza de los Ponchos (expect to pay at least 20-25% below the asking price for the crafts on offer).
Head into the long valley of the Avenue of Volcanoes, beginning 40km south of Quito and containing more than 70 volcanoes, to see the snow-capped Andes in all their glory. The Cotopaxi National Park around the Cotopaxi volcano boasts spectacular glaciers and snowfields, while the surrounding countryside is dotted with haciendas offering accommodation and family-friendly outdoor activities such as horse-riding, mountain-biking, bird-watching and hiking.
Travel south via the Devil’s Nose switchback, to the beautiful colonial city of Cuenca (300km from Quito) and the Inca ruins of Ingapirca.
Venture east of the Andes, where the Amazon rainforest flourishes up to the border with Peru. Spend a few days delving into the jungle, spotting tapirs, lizards, monkeys and all manner of bird species in their natural habitat. Note that while the Amazon is easily accessible on family adventure tips (see Trips tab), the more remote lodges should only be attempted with older kids.
Travel west of the Andes, where the cloud-forest reserves that descend to the Pacific are the place for twitchers (both young and old) to spot an amazing diversity of bird species.
Whether you opt for a whistle-stop tour of the mainland, focus on the Amazon and/or the Andes in more depth, or skip Ecuador altogether, the Galapagos Islands are what it’s really all about. Kids who love animals (and which don’t?) adore getting up-close and personal with unique animal life that includes famous giant tortoises, the Galapagos land iguana and all manner of birds, from blue-footed boobies (there’ll be no avoiding the obvious jokes) to Darwin finches. Cool sea currents have also introduced coldwater species to the tropical seas – sightings of penguins, orca and fur seals can also be expected. Just remember that restrictions on visitor numbers to the Galapagos National Park means bookings may need to be made early.
Cruises are the usual way to visit the Galapagos Islands, with a huge variety of family-friendly options available, from private yachts to passenger cruise ships; Quasar Expeditions is among the firms offering specific Family Cruises complete with child-friendly guides and kids’ dishes at meal times. Island visits, kayaking, snorkelling, star-gazing and glass-bottomed boat-trips keep the kids well occupied. The minimum age on such trips tends to be 5 or 6, and they must be good swimmers.
Land-lovers or those with younger kids can base themselves in one place and access the other islands during the day (local nannies can look after younger kids if you want to do specific activities with the older ones). Puerto Ayora on Isla Santa Cruz is the largest town in the Galapagos Islands, with a good selection of shops and accommodation.
Adventure trips and Galapagos cruises are likely to include meals as part of the family holiday package; if so, child-friendly dishes will be provided, often Western family favourites such as pizza and pasta. Large cities such as Quito have the usual mix of international eateries offering everything from Italian to Mexican. American fast-food chains also make their presence felt.
Otherwise, exotic fruits, seafood and a vast variety of Andean potatoes are some of the staples of the Ecuadorian diet. Soups are popular – locro de papas, a delicious soup made with milk, avocado, cheese and potatoes, is especially well loved. Other local specialities include menestra (stewed beans or lentils) with steak and the hot sauce aji. Bakeries in cities are good pit-stops for sweet pastries and tasty savory snacks, including empanadas (hot, crispy meat- or cheese-filled pastries) and llapingachos (potato and cheese pancakes).
Tap-water is best avoided.
Quito Cultural Heritage festival
When to go to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands
Ecuador is a year-round destination, with each region experiencing a different climate. The coastal cities have a hot and humid climate year-round, while the high-altitude cities of Quito and Cuenca enjoy permanent spring-like conditions. Temperatures in the Andes vary considerably, so layers are recommended.
The Galapagos Islands are warmest in the first part of the year, from December through to May, though many find the islands a little too hot and rainy for a family holiday at Christmas. To dodge seasickness, avoid July–Oct, when the seas are rougher.
The region is strongly affected by the El Nino phenomenon, which changes the weather dramatically when it occurs. Also, bear in mind that the altitude of cities such as Quito and Cuenca can affect your health, so both kids and grown-ups need to drink plenty of water and to take time to acclimatize (and to be in good health at the time of visiting).
View of Cotopaxi from Quito
As you'd expect, family holidays to this part of the world are generally one-in-a-lifetime affairs financially. Fifteen-day adventure holidays to Ecuador and Galapagos, including flights, start at £2,399 for adults and £2,299 for children.
Ecuador abolished its own currency in 2000 and US dollars are now legal tender throughout the country. Tipping is appreciated and is usually expected on guided tours or cruises involving a small number of staff.
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Flying time16.5hrs All flight times are based on flights from UK London airports, to the capital or nearest destination airport.
Carbon footprint0 CO2 Estimated tonnes of CO2 produced for return flights for a family of four.
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