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Ecuador is upping its game in 2014, from restored haciendas to the reopening of a historic train line. Our specialists have been investigating these exciting new developments.

Quito's old town is best explored on foot.
Quito's old town is best explored on foot.

Historic hacienda opens its doors in the northern Andes

Jean-Sebastien finds a welcome change of pace at Hacienda Piman

Often overlooked by travelers making a beeline for the Galapagos Islands, the diminutive Ecuadorian mainland has a wealth of experiences for those who are willing to give it a go.

Galapagos Islands, EcuadorA long-term favorite of our specialists, the mainland is home to fine traditional haciendas, authentic markets, UNESCO World Heritage cities, picture-postcard Andean scenery and some of the continent’s best Amazon lodges. However, much has changed in the past 12 months following significant private and government investment. Here, our specialists run through some of the new experiences Ecuador has to offer.

Hacienda Piman is a great new addition to the former and current working farms that have now opened their doors to guests in Ecuador. It dates back to 1680, making it one of the oldest haciendas in the country, and it has remained in the hands of the distinguished Zaldumbide family ever since its construction. Former residents have included famous national literary figures and soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars. The original hacienda has been lovingly restored and some additional cabins constructed, offering a charming combination of old and new.

During a stay here guests can explore the beautiful grounds, relax by the pool or try one of the longer walks in the surrounding countryside. It is also possible to take a train to the coastal town of Salinas on the recently restored railway line, passing lush green valleys and towering volcanoes. For those feeling adventurous, there are a series of mountain biking trails to suit all abilities, or you could take an excursion to El Angel Ecological Reserve, home to haunting forest landscapes and high-altitude lakes.

New vessel brings a touch of style to the Amazon

Harry was one of the first to experience the new luxurious river cruise on board the Anakonda

As I hopped on board, I was greeted by the captain and crew with a warm welcome and a refreshing cocktail. After punching in the passcode to enter my air-conditioned suite, what first caught my attention was the sliding panoramic window, which granted sweeping views of the riverbank. The modern furnishings continued into my en suite bathroom where I even found a hydro-massage shower — definitely a touch of luxury in the Amazon! Outside of my suite, relaxation could be found on the rooftop observation deck, which had a Wi-Fi connection and even a Jacuzzi.

Amazon excursions from La SelvaOur itinerary took us downstream along the Napo River, which bisects the Yasuni and Cuyabeno reserves — some of the most pristine rainforest in the Amazon basin. The expert naturalist guides were astonishingly skilled at spotting birds, monkeys, turtles, caiman and even a sloth. We were led on many, great expeditions by canoe, but it was a visit to the indigenous Sani community that was a particular highlight, and one that outshone all of the luxuries available on board. We learnt about life in the jungle and enjoyed some local delicacies, including roasted weevil!

On the four- and seven-day voyages the ship reaches the Peruvian border, where it is possible to catch a glimpse of the elusive pink river dolphin. A concierge service is also available, via which guests can arrange personalized excursions, or even a night ‘glamping’ in the jungle canopy — something I would definitely like to try if I’m lucky enough to experience the Anakonda again.

Restored railway links the Andes and ocean once more

Simon was one of the first passengers on board the Tren Crucero, a new railway experience covering the restored historic tracks from the Andes to coast

Our train had descended from the towering Ecuadorian Andes to the steamy tropical coast in under 48 hours when we slowly chugged through sugar cane and banana plantations into the remote, little-visited town of Milagro. This, for me, was the most incredible sight of the entire journey. The train track took us right down the middle of Milagro’s high street and it seemed like the whole town had come out to greet us: families waved and shouted ‘hola!’ and children ran along with the train as it trundled through.

Ecuador's highlands on the Tren CruceroThe Ecuadorians are proud of Tren Crucero, and they are so happy to see it passing through their towns once more. This journey is an incredible way to get under the skin of Ecuador. Although the scenery is spectacular and the haciendas used en route are wonderful places to stay, it is the people that make it an unforgettable experience.

The Ecuadorian government has spent more than $250 million restoring the 450 km railway line from Quito to Guayaquil. It’s a four-day journey that takes in sweeping Andean scenery and the Avenue of the Volcanoes as well as traditional market towns and visits to indigenous communities.

It was such a privilege to join the first trip on Tren Crucero. The highlight was seeing the hope, pride and excitement that has grasped the local people; they are overjoyed to see the railway working once again. I left with the hope that the train will bring positives to the regions it passes through, and that Ecuadorians themselves will also be able to experience this journey through their beautiful country.

An inspirational enterprise scheme offers a new perspective

Jean-Sebastien visits a unique community project in the Amazon

The Minga Lodge is not your typical Amazon lodge, it’s a lodge that makes a real difference to the local community, at the same time as giving you an authentic and off-the-beaten-track adventure.

Canoe excursion, Napo Wildlife CentreI took part in an innovative social enterprise called Me to We, which operates in communities in need around the world. In Ecuador, Me to We supports the Mondaña and Bella Vista communities under what is called the ‘adopt a village’ model, designed to meet the basic needs of developing communities and eliminate the obstacles preventing children from accessing education. As well as education it also focuses on alternative income, health care, clean water and sanitation, and agriculture and food security.

After a 2.5-hour boat journey along the Napo River I was taken to the Mondaña community and introduced to the local women’s group. Here they produce jewelry, which gives them additional income and the opportunity to develop a new skill. That evening I ventured out for a night walk in the Amazon — not for the faint hearted as we spotted tarantula and a black scorpion among many other curious jungle dwellers!

San Rafael Cacao Plantation, Tren CruceroThe next day it was on to the Bella Vista community where Me to We has been building a new classroom for the local school. It also hopes to develop a new water system. The school had prepared a surprise dance display and even asked me to say a few words. We then helped out with work on the classroom, sanding and varnishing some wood — some of the typical tasks you would undertake during a longer stay here. It was great to see first-hand just how much the work carried out means to everyone.

One of my final stops was at a cacao plantation where José explained how, together with his family, he has been farming cacao seeds that are sold in both Ecuador and France. I had a go at making chocolate and, more importantly, tasting it when we got back to the lodge. My experience with Me to We was genuinely eye-opening and an absolute pleasure to be involved in. It was great to learn about an initiative that takes pride in measuring its bottom line not by the revenue earned, but by the number of lives that it changes.

Ecuador fact file

Time zone

UTC -5

Flight time from the USA

8 hours + (New York to Quito)

When to go

As with the rest of South America, the geographical diversity of Ecuador means each region has seasonal variations. April to October is best for the Andes, November to April for the Amazon, but Ecuador is a truly year-round destination. In brief: Although one of the continent’s smaller countries, Ecuador offers plenty of the variety that South America is most famous for, from majestic Andean scenery to colonial cities, colorful markets and an Amazon jungle experience to suit every taste. Read our full guide about the best time to visit Ecuador.

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