The mountain city of Quito is not only Ecuador’s capital, but a historic city that features one of the Americas’ largest and best-preserved colonial districts. Quito’s 130 historic buildings include ornate and art-filled 16th and 17th century basilicas, churches and palaces, connected by winding cobblestone streets leading to broad open plazas. In 1978 Quito joined Krakow, Poland as one of UNESCO’s first two official World Heritage Sites.

SEE – Quito’s position at 9,350 feet above sea level places the city within range of spectacular natural attractions. The city in fact lies along the eastern flank of the Pichincha volcano, and is indeed surrounded by volcanoes that are visible across the city on clear days.

Cotopaxi National Park, located in a protected area of the Pichincha province 30 miles south of Quito, offers an up-close view of the region’s volcanoes. The park features the snow-capped Cotopaxi along with two others volcanoes: the dormant Ruminawi volcano and the Sincholagua volcano, which last erupted in 1877. Cotopaxi is among the highest active volcanoes in the world; its last significant eruption took place in 1904.

Visitors to Cotopaxi can opt for hiking, horseback riding and mountain-bike excursions among the park’s awe-inspiring natural settings and distinctive Andean fauna. Travelers will find more than 100 species of birds as well as deer, foxes and even puma. Modern-day Andean cowboys even herd cattle within the park’s boundaries. Travelers can select from day tours of the park or visit Cotopaxi as part of eight-day Andean valley tours that end in Cotopaxi’s lower plains. Along the way travelers can stay in historic estates were built during the 17th century.

VISIT – Located two hours by car from Quito, Ecuador’s cloud forest offers a lush alternative to the soaring volcanoes around Quito and the city’s urban environment.

A cloud forest is characterized by a persistent low-level cloud cover, usually at the canopy level, and an abundance of moss-covered ground and vegetation. Indeed almost every inch of Ecuador’s cloud forest, from the standing and fallen trees to the very ground itself, is covered in parasitic flora. The cloud forest is home to more than 500 bird species and a variety of orchids endemic to the region.

Travelers can explore Ecuador’s cloud forest through stays at one of the area’s ecologically themes hotels, including the Pachijal Reserva Ecologica and the Mashpi Lodge.

EXPERIENCE – Tren Crucero is a high-end rail service that traces historic routes through the country’s Andes and coastal regions. The railway offers one- to three-night steam and diesel locomotive excursions through 300 miles of Ecuador’s highlands, allowing travelers to visit indigenous communities and experience regional cuisine, creative arts and cultural customs.

Tren Crucero offers three routes that traverse Ecuador’s Andes from Quito to the country’s Pacific Coast: Quito to Guayaquil (three nights), Quito to Alausi (two) and Alausi to Guayaquil (one). Daily excursions visit Ecuador’s “Avenue of the Volcanoes” and the Guamote indigenous Andean market. Itineraries also include visits to Cotopaxi National Park and a rose plantation utilizing fair trade practices.

Powered by steam and diesel locomotives, the four-coach train features capacity for 54 passengers in sofa chairs facing dining tables. The coaches also offer personal lockers, a café serving beverages and snacks and an outdoor terrace from where travelers can observe Ecuador’s landscape. The railway features bilingual service staff and guides, and Ecuadorian feasts are held at local haciendas where travelers spend the night.

EAT – Ecuadorian cuisine varies with the country’s altitude and agricultural conditions. Residents of the mountain regions prefer pork, chicken, beef, and coy (guinea pig) served with grains including rice, corn and potatoes. Popcorn, both in its popped and kernel form, is an extremely popular appetizer.

Seafood dominates the country’s coastal regions, with shrimp and ceviche served with fried plantain and popcorn are considered staples. Arroz con menestra y carne asada (rice with beans and grilled beef) is a traditional dish of Guayaquil, along with fried plantain. Yuca is a favorite of the Amazon region, and fruits including bananas, tree grapes, and peach palms are available across the region.

BUY – The weaving of garments from alpaca wool is a long-honored Ecuadorean art. Alpaca textiles are available for purchase all around the country, including at the Otavalo artisan market in the Andes. The style of hat today known as a “Panama” hat originated in Ecuador around the 17th century. It is a traditional, brimmed hat of toquilla straw made from the plaited leaves of the Carludovica palmata plant, and is available from makers around the country.