I first came to Ecuador in 1998, fresh from university and eager for South American adventures. As I flew over the Avenue of Volcanoes south of Quito , the young woman sitting next to me proudly pointed out the perfect cone-shaped peak of Cotopaxi  to the east and, on the other side of the aircraft, majestic Chimborazo  looming to the west.
Barely 20 minutes later, we were flying over the sodden marshland and rice fields of the coastal plains before touching down in hot, humid Guayaquil . I was immediately struck by Ecuador’s incredible contrasts, and it wasn’t long before I was bouncing on a bus through the banana plantations into the mountains and rainforests beyond to see it all firsthand.
Instead of asking “Why go to Ecuador?,” you should ask yourself, “Why haven’t I been there already?”
This is a country where you can wake up gazing at the Pacific, drive through the Andes past 5,000-meter-high volcanoes, and reach the Amazon rainforest before sundown.
The locals call Ecuador “four countries in one,” and it’s no exaggeration. The contrasts you encounter in an area roughly the size of Britain or the U.S. state of Colorado are astonishing, and the people of Ecuador are just as diverse as the landscapes—Shuar Indians hunting with blowpipes, poncho-wearing artisans plying their wares in Andean markets, and salsa-dancing señoritas tearing it up on urban dance floors.
As varied as the terrain and the people is the wildlife. Ecuador is one of the world’s most biodiverse countries, with 1,600 species of birds and 25,000 species of plants, more than the total number of species found in North America. All this diversity on the mainland doesn’t even take into account the unique ecosystem of the Galápagos Islands , frequently voted the world’s best tourist destination.
Nowhere else on earth can you view wildlife so utterly unconcerned by humans. Come face to craggy face with giant tortoises, snorkel with nonchalant sea turtles and playful sea lions, watch the hilarious mating dance of the blue-footed boobies, or go scuba diving with whale sharks and hammerheads.
After experiencing all these wonders, you may be reluctant to leave—and you’re in good company. The first evening I spent in Ecuador, the boss of the language institute where I was working told me with a knowing look: “A lot of people come down here, fall in love, and end up staying.” I laughed it off at the time, but it wasn’t long before I became one of those people. Perhaps you’ll be next.