Q: Next year, our daughter will be 17 and our son 15, so we want to plan a big holiday for what is possibly our last as a family. We've heard that Ecuador has a bit of everything - mountains, jungle and sea. We enjoy fairly active holidays - walking, seeing sights and a bit of relaxing - but particularly enjoy being off the tourist track. We want to go for three weeks, and our budget is £6,000-£8,000. Is this realistic, and what can you recommend?
Paul Smith, West Yorkshire
A: At just 400 miles long, Ecuador - the little "bump" on the north-west coast of South America, split into two unequal halves by the equator - is no bigger than the state of Nevada. Yet it punches well above its weight in terms of landscape, packing Andean mountains, deep Amazonian rainforest and unspoilt Pacific coastline into an area a quarter of the size of its neighbour Peru. It also works well for visits in the school summer holidays, since these coincide with the dry season - though the weather varies with terrain, from the "eternal spring" of the highland cities, to the humid river-basin and the sea-fogged coast.
Your budget is certainly realistic. Half is likely to go on flights - based on departures this summer, at the time of writing, KLM (08705 074074; www.klm.com) had a best July/August price of £970 return per adult, from Leeds/Bradford to Quito via Amsterdam. Once you're there, though, £50 a day each is enough for mid-range food and accommodation; as the currency is the US dollar, UK travellers get a lot for their money.
Several reputable companies run family tours in the area: the Adventure Company (0845 450 5316; www.adventurecompany.co.uk) and Families Worldwide (0845 051 4567; www.familiesworldwide.co.uk) are just two - but independent parents won't find it hard to make their own way around. The top-end option is to hire a 4x4 with a driver for about $195 (£108) a day. Try Color Bus Line in Quito (00 593 2 2863 349; www.colorbusline.com). Avis, Hertz, etc also have offices in the major cities and airports, with car hire starting at about $78 (£43) a day. But taking the buseta - small, 22-seater buses - is by far the most popular way to travel. These are plentiful, reasonably comfortable, and wildly cheap: express routes between towns cost about $1 (55p) per hour's journey time.
Tourists tend to gather in the capital, Quito, the pretty colonial town of Cuenca to the south, or the market town of Otavalo in the north. All are worth seeing, but it's not hard to arrange things so that you can avoid the crowds. Otavalo is well-known for its brightly coloured blankets, jumpers and hammocks sold at the crowded Saturday market, but is also in the centre of Ecuador's "lake district", an area dotted with water-filled volcanic craters that's perfect for walking. The English-owned, and beautifully restored, 17th-century Hacienda Cusin in nearby Imbaburra (00 593 6 291 8013; www.haciendacusin.com) makes an attractive base for exploring the area, with hikers' route maps, guided horse rides or mountain biking all available. A connecting, four-bed family suite in the flower-filled garden, with colour-washed walls, woven bedspreads and an open fireplace, costs $240 (£133) per night B&B. From here you could take the bus south along the "Avenue of the Volcanoes", a stunning valley along the Pan-American Highway. You will certainly get your fill of volcanoes - Tungurahua, 74 miles south of Quito, is currently spewing ash on such a scale that nearby villages have been evacuated. Other options include visits to the little village of Baños, famous for its springs, and hiring a local guide for a day-long trek along an old Incan trail to Ingapirca, Ecuador's most important pre-Columbian ruins.
Some remote jungle lodges are run by indigenous communities, with accommodation in simple but comfortable wooden huts. They tend to have an ecological bias, and make superb bases for bird-watching - or even a spot of piranha-fishing in the Amazon. Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk) offers several of these for a variety of budgets - one of the most off-the-beaten track is the riverside Kapawi Lodge, run by the forest Achuar people, who will take visitors on fishing trips or guided jungle walks. Three nights here cost £381 per person full board, including flights and transfer by motorised canoe.
Ecuador's dry-forested central coastal region is particularly quiet, and only just beginning to open up to tourists. But it is very beautiful, and also offers the chance to experience similar wildlife to that of the Galapagos away to the west - though at a fraction of the price. A clean, surf-side double room in a wooden cabin at the Hostería La Terraza (00 593 5 23 00 235; www.laterraza.de) in the fishing village of Puerto Lopez, on the edge of the Machalilla National Park, costs only $25 (£14) a night B&B. From here, take a boat trip to see albatrosses and sea lions at Isla de la Plata; go humpback whale-watching and snorkelling on sandy Los Frailes beach; explore Incan ruins at Agua Blanca, or search for wild orchids on a hike in the cloud forest of San Sebastian. A bus runs daily from Quito to Puerto Lopez; the 11-hour trip costs $12 (£6.50). Or you can fly with Tame (00 593 2 2909 900; www.tame.com.ec) from Quito to nearby Portoviejo for about $100 (£56) return each.
Send your family travel queries to The Independent Parent, Travel Desk, The Independent, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS or email firstname.lastname@example.org