Ecuador might not be the first country that springs to mind when you’re planning a trip to South America – especially with famous neighbours like Colombia, Peru, and Costa Rica – but it packs a punch when it comes to amazing experiences. Rich cultural heritage, platefuls of tasty cuisine and endless natural beauty. What’s not to love?
From the beautiful UNESCO city of Quito to the world’s largest active volcano, Cotapaxi, here are some of our top places to visit and things to do in Ecuador.
The capital of the country is a UNESCO destination, often described as the most beautiful big city in South America. Nestled in a valley below the peaks of the Andes, it’s small enough to explore on foot. It offers a mix of striking architecture, a bold art and culture scene, diverse museums and a melting pot of the old and new. When the mist clears, you can explore its secrets among narrow cobblestone streets and leafy plazas.
The sixteenth-century old town sits alongside a wonderful variety of restaurants, lively nightlife, and quirky shops. Don’t miss its lovely public parks and crazy high cable car on the slopes of the Pichincha volcano. It’s definitely far more than just a jumping-off point for other Ecuadorian adventures, but it’s a great place to land in and acclimatise to the altitude, for at least a couple of days, before rushing off anywhere else.
A couple of hours away from Quito, the adventure capital of Ecuador is a small mountain town, at the foot of the Tungurahua volcano. It’s home to a mind-boggling range of things to do that will appeal to both extreme adrenalin seekers and those just looking for a fun activity. As you might expect, it’s busy and popular with tourists. But if you can look past that, then a few days in this amazing setting offers the chance to try canyoning, whitewater rafting, paragliding, bridge swings, waterfall excursions, biking, and climbing. Afterwards, you can enjoy a soak in the thermal springs from where it takes its name.
The Quilotoa Loop is a perfect high altitude adventure. Featuring a pretty lagoon, this trek through rural valleys and epic landscapes, small communities and cosy lodges, is perfect if you enjoy escaping off the beaten track. The famous crater lake – created by a volcanic eruption in 1208 – offers a view that’ll take your breath away (and not just because of the altitude). Standing on the rim, you’ll feel a connection to the natural world as you take in the glassy water below, with the snowcapped peaks of Cotopaxi and Illiniza Sur in the distance. There are lots of hiking routes you can take here too. So leave the WiFi behind and get ready to venture into the wild.
Ecuador’s third largest city has beauty at its heart – quite literally. Another UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its historic buildings, the charming colonial streets of Cuenca have something of a European vibe. Not only is this a reflection of its architectural flair, it’s also down to the city being a hub of culture, art, and artisans. Here, there is a relaxed energy and people are welcoming and friendly. This, alongside its mountain setting and Andean culture, makes it very appealing to short and long term visitors.
From the stunning Cathedral de la Inmaculada, whose blue domes define the skyline, to the Pumapungo Museum, the grassy banks of the Tomebamba River and the (100% Ecuadorian) “Panama Hat” which is produced here – there’s much to enjoy in quirky Cuenca. We recommend getting high here too. Literally. Find a rooftop or a viewpoint such as Mirador de Turi, to enjoy the breadth and beauty of the city. From Cuenca, you can also take day trips to hike among the flora and fauna of the Andes in the glorious Cajas National Park, or explore Ingapirca, Ecuador’s largest Inca ruin site.
Cotopaxi is the world’s largest active volcano with a rare glacier at its summit, which is over a whopping 5000m. It’s part of the chain of volcanoes known as the Pacific Ring of Fire, and it certainly has a fiery history. It’s erupted over fifty times, most recently in 2015. Explosive lava aside, Cotopaxi has a seductive charm that lures visitors to climb it. Its slopes offer a natural wonderland; a national park home to wildlife, including Andean condors, wild horses, foxes, deers, llamas and the elusive and incredibly rare, spectacled bear.
Should you choose to lace up your hiking boots, a 4WD drive to a stone-built refuge (past the 4000m mark), offers a home for an overnight stay in the park. This provides a starting point – in the middle of the night – to scale the few hundred metres to the stunning peak where you enjoy a once in a lifetime big volcano vistas. Beware though….while the climb is made accessible to tourists, it’s still a steep ascent at high altitude, in an environment where the weather is very susceptible to dramatic and fast change. The city of Latacunga may offer an alternative ascent route. It’s important to note though – you can cycle back down it! Talk to us about how best to add this to your Ecuador bucket list.
6. The Amazon
Ecuador is one of nine nations that the vast Amazon rainforest spans across. From places such as Tena, a fair chunk of the twenty million acres of rainforest in Ecuador, is remarkably accessible and travel-friendly. Take a jungle trek for a chance to encounter hundreds of colourful bird species, look out for monkeys, caiman, the shy sloth and the famous anaconda. Speed things up with a white water rafting trip, or slow things down with a canoe ride. Spend time with local Quicha people and delve into the world of the shaman and herbal plant medicine. This adventure can offer lots of opportunities to learn about the forest and its resources and their importance and role within the culture of the indigenous people. Whatever you get up to, you’ll be surrounded by some amazing landscapes and nature. The whole place is teeming with plant life and creatures – from the tallest tree to the teeniest flower petals.
On your way back out of the jungle, a wonderful way to wind down is by enjoying a soak in the Andean hot springs of Papallacta, located in the Cayambe-Coca Reserve, around two and a half hours from Tena and around one and a half hours from Quito. The main spa complex is 3km above the village and the many sparkling pools of Las Termas de Papallacta offer the country’s most luxurious thermal-baths experience. Alternatively, you could take a dip in the public pools in the middle of the village, which are more modest than the spa. They’re centrally located and have two large pools. Set with a backdrop of Antisana volcano, near rivers and the southwestern skirts of the Andes. If you decide to explore on foot, this moorland area is home to the so-called paper trees – the polylepis. It’s also good for spotting spectacled bears and the endangered Andean condor – Ecuador’s national animal.
While Ecuador isn’t renowned for its beaches, it has some pretty coastline that’s worth checking out if you have the time. You can totally disconnect and chill out in Mompiche, a place to relax and watch the fishermen catch your dinner, here you’ll find some of the best seafood available in the country. Playa Escondida is also super quiet and ‘off-grid’ for nature lovers and Los Frailes has a tranquil beauty. Monanita is touristy and busy and known for surfing and partying, which may appeal before or after some quiet time. Ecuadorians love weekend beach action, so if you’re visiting any popular spots then, be prepared for it to be busy!
On the flip side, you can hop across the border – by bus or transfer – to neighbouring Peru for a spot of chill-out time in Máncora. This former fishing village isn’t exactly the Maldives, but it’s an ideal spot to unwind in the sunshine.
Otavalo is one of those places you hear about, where people often overuse the word ‘authentic’ to describe it. As a traveller, full of anticipation, you have to consider how best to manage your excitement and expectations. However, be prepared to be surprised – in a good way. This place seems to successfully blend indigenous culture and more modern-day living. More than half of the inhabitants of Otavalo still wear traditional dress and hats, and men wear long braided hair.
While many visitors choose to day trip to Otavalo from Quito, specifically for the famous Saturday Market, we recommend hanging out here a little longer if you have time. It’s definitely worth ensuring your stay includes a Friday night into Saturday though, as this is the main market day. The main Plaza de Ponchos and surrounding streets are all closed off to traffic. In place of cars, you’ll find stall after stall of goods for sale. Prepare to haggle for handmade clothing, hats, jewellery, artwork, trinkets and shoes. There’s also lots of food. But the best part about this market is that you’ll see many residents, and people from nearby villages stocking up on goods for the week. It is not just for tourists. Top tip: Get up and out super early to beat the crowds.
From Otavalo there are other spots close by that make our list including Peguche Waterfall and Lake Cuicocha, a 3km wide caldera and crater lake at the foot of Cotacachi Volcano. It’s rather spectacular and to hike around it takes around three to five hours.
10. The Mindo Valley
In Northern Ecuador, on the western slopes of the Andes, there is a point where two of the most diverse ecoregions in the world, meet. The Chocoan lowlands and the Tropical Andes. Rivers, streams, and waterfalls run through this rural landscape, framed by a quilt of cloud forests – low hanging clouds that form from the heavy sub-tropical moisture and literally “hang” on the upper canopy of the forest. Its unique biodiversity makes it extremely attractive to visitors. The natural environment provides ideal conditions for rafting, trekking, tubing, canonying, horseriding, zip-lining, biking and of course, wildlife watching. Oh, and chocolate making. Here, you can indulge in some delicious choco treats and perhaps stay in one of the traditional rustic lodges to complete your forest experience.
While there isn’t a massive amount to do in the town of Alausi, it’s still charming and does offer access to Nariz del Diablo “The Devils Nose”, a very scenic part of the Andes mountains. To reach the viewing station at the top of the mountain, you take a train that zigzags across its near-vertical slopes. It’s, in fact, the steepest descent of any section of railroad track in the world. On your journey, you can enjoy views of the gorge of the Chanchan river and have the chance to learn about the traditions of the Puruhuas people on Sibambe, as they perform a traditional dance during one of the stopping points. The trains themselves are an integral part of the experience, but be sure to book ahead and reserve a seat on the right-hand side for the best views.
You might be wondering why the Galapagos Islands are last on our list for Ecuador. Generally, they are the number one reason people come here; to see the mind-boggling array of wildlife and flora that you won’t find anywhere else in the world. Firstly, it’s because there’s so much to enjoy about mainland Ecuador. Secondly, it’s because we have a separate Galapagos travel guide that’ll give you an in-depth low down on these spectacular islands.
Guayaquil, the leaping off point for the Galapagos is not only a popular transport hub, but a city of renewal and redevelopment. It is home to Ecuador’s tallest building and it has the largest ferris wheel in South America. It also features a totally transformed and fabulous riverfront promenade, Malecon 2000, which hosts a range of eateries and entertainment for visitors. With a new train line to the countryside, the continued investment into its regeneration means that one of the country’s oldest cities is also a centre for a modern, future Ecuador.