Incredible Places to Visit in Ecuador
Ecuador, though compact in size, offers an array of captivating experiences for travelers. From serene beaches to towering glaciers, lush jungles to charming colonial cities, and the famed Galapagos Islands, Ecuador boasts an astounding diversity of landscapes and activities. If you plan to travel to Ecuador, it's essential to obtain an Ecuadorian visa beforehand.
"All You Need is Ecuador"
Ecuador's long-standing tourism slogan, "All you need is Ecuador," aptly reflects the country's ability to cater to a wide range of interests and preferences. Whether you're a cultural explorer, a nature enthusiast, a beach lover, or an adventure seeker, Ecuador has something special in store for you.
Top 20 Must-Visit Destinations
We've spent six months traversing Ecuador to curate a list of the top 20 places you must visit. These destinations encompass the essence of what makes Ecuador unique. Let's explore some of these remarkable locations:
1. Galapagos Islands: Wildlife Wonderland
Location: Off Ecuador's Coast
The Galapagos Islands are a naturalist's dream, offering untouched landscapes teeming with diverse and unique wildlife. Here, you can:
- Encounter sea lions and iguanas on the beaches
- Observe wild flamingos, penguins, and marine iguanas
- Snorkel with sharks, sea turtles, and giant manta rays
- Dive into the blue-footed booby's world
- Marvel at Galapagos hawks, finches, and frigate birds
- Witness the elusive whale shark
The Galapagos Islands are now more accessible than ever, even for budget travelers. Our detailed travel guide provides invaluable insights for planning your Galapagos adventure.
2. Summiting Volcanoes: An Adventurous Quest
Ecuador boasts a multitude of volcanoes, beckoning adventure seekers to embark on thrilling ascents. Some prominent options include:
Location: Near Riobamba
- Tallest mountain in Ecuador at 6,263 meters
- Closest point on Earth's surface to outer space
- Requires technical ice-climbing gear for summiting
- Shorter day hikes available for a taste of the challenge
Sierra Negra Volcano
Location: Isabela Island, Galapagos
- Most active volcano in the Galapagos
- Immense 9.3-kilometer-wide caldera
- Spectacular day hike on otherworldly volcanic terrain
- Half-day hiking tours for independent travelers
Location: Near Latacunga and Quito
- One of the world's tallest active volcanoes
- Summit reaches 5,897 meters
- Overnight ascent for experienced climbers
- Day treks to base camp for a taste of the adventure
These volcanoes promise both thrilling challenges and breathtaking views, making them must-do activities for adventurers in Ecuador.
3) Explore Ecuador’s UNESCO-listed Historic Centers: Quito & Cuenca
Quito: A Step Back in Time
Quito boasts one of Latin America's best-preserved historic centers, earning it UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1978. As you wander through its centuries-old streets, you'll feel like you've stepped into a different era. Despite earthquakes and modernization, the baroque buildings of Quito's Old Town remain remarkably intact.
- Grand plazas, historic churches, and charming cafes await exploration.
- Museums provide deeper insights into the city's rich history.
- Quito's historic center is a captivating place that should be on every Ecuador itinerary.
Cuenca: The "Athens of Ecuador"
Cuenca, known as the "Athens of Ecuador," exudes European charm and has earned its UNESCO designation for its centuries-old colonial architecture. But it's not just about the buildings; it's a testament to Cuenca's enduring culture, art, and artisanry. The city's historic center has adhered to its original city planning for over 400 years.
- Colonial streets, cathedrals, and ruins transport you to another time.
- Cuenca's rich history and traditions make it a cultural hub.
- The city's colonial architecture and preservation are truly remarkable.
4) Float through the Amazon Jungle
Ecuador's eastern region encompasses a vast expanse of the Amazon Rainforest, offering unique experiences for those willing to venture into its remote jungles. Here, you can:
- Fish for piranhas and spot pink river dolphins.
- Meet local shamans and search for anacondas.
- Encounter monkeys, tapirs, and even elusive jaguars.
- Explore lush rainforests with towering canopies.
- Visit remote native tribes for cultural exchanges.
While it's possible to explore the Amazon independently, it's often best experienced through guided tours and lodge stays. Two notable areas to explore are:
Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve: This reserve offers a range of jungle lodges for various budgets. Tours typically depart from Lago Agrio, accessible from Quito by bus or flight.
Yasuni National Park: A more adventurous option, reaching Yasuni involves a journey that includes bus rides and boat trips to the isolated village of Nuevo Rocafuerte, located near the Peruvian border.
The Ecuadorian Amazon promises an unforgettable adventure for nature enthusiasts and cultural explorers alike.
5) Admire Ecuador’s Best Waterfalls
Ecuador's Andean landscape is dotted with thousands of breathtaking waterfalls. While the famous San Rafael waterfall may be temporarily inaccessible, there are still countless cascades to explore. Here are a few notable ones:
Pailón del Diablo (Devil’s Cauldron): This waterfall is considered the tallest in the Ecuadorian Andes. A short trail takes you through a narrow canyon, complete with stairs and suspension bridges, leading to a stunning 80-meter waterfall. Accessible from Baños, it's an adventure worth every step.
Nambillo Waterfall Sanctuary: Located in the Mindo Cloud Forest, this sanctuary is a haven for waterfall enthusiasts. With at least fifteen different waterfalls, including the impressive Cascada Reina (Queen Waterfall), it's a paradise for hikers. Natural pools below the falls offer a refreshing escape.
Cascada El Chorro (Giron Waterfall): Plunging 70 meters from the Andes into a cloud forest, this lesser-visited gem is accessed by a short hike. Located near Cuenca, it offers a tranquil escape into lush surroundings.
Ecuador's waterfalls offer a refreshing and enchanting way to connect with its natural beauty. Don't miss the opportunity to explore these captivating cascades during your visit.
6) Discover Ecuador’s Ancient Inca Ruins
Pumapungo Ruins in Cuenca: Right within the colonial city of Cuenca, you can explore the Pumapungo ruins, believed to be part of the ancient city of Tomebamba. These ruins, once inhabited by the Cañari people before the Incas, offer a glimpse into Ecuador's rich history and are easily accessible within the city.
Ecuador's Inca Trail: A 40-kilometer section of the UNESCO-listed Camino de Inca runs from Alchupallas to Ingapirca. This centuries-old trail winds through the Andes, passing ancient bridges, crumbling structures, and Incan towns. Ingapirca, the largest Inca ruin site in Ecuador, is the ultimate destination, featuring the impressive Sun Temple and offering a glimpse into Inca history.
7) Relax among Ecuador’s Best Beaches
Montañita: This vibrant surfing town exudes reggae vibes and is a popular stopover on Ecuador's backpacking trail. It's perfect for sunbathing, surfing, and partying.
Canoa: A laid-back coastal town with excellent surf and one of Ecuador's longest beaches, framed by towering cliffs.
Salinas: Known as Ecuador's premier beach resort town, Salinas boasts five-star hotels, tourist attractions, and vibrant nightlife. It's a great place to relax or go whale watching.
Galapagos Islands: Explore the pristine natural beaches of the Galapagos Islands, where wildlife often outnumbers humans. Tortuga Bay on Isla Santa Cruz is a particularly stunning spot, known for its clear waters and resident sea lions and iguanas.
8) Hike to one of Ecuador’s Spectacular Crater Lakes
Quilotoa Crater: Witness the breathtaking three-kilometer-wide caldera of Quilotoa, a former volcano transformed into a deep crater lake. Take a day trip to trek down into the crater or embark on the 3-day Quilotoa Loop trek to explore nearby Andean villages and enjoy homecooked meals.
El Altar Crater: Near Riobamba, El Altar is a collapsed volcano with the stunning Laguna Amarilla in its crater. The 35-kilometer roundtrip hike takes 2-3 days and offers a challenging but rewarding adventure.
Laguna Cuicocha: Known as "guinea pig lake" in the indigenous Kichwa language, this crater lake is surrounded by two islands resembling guinea pig backs. Accessible as a day excursion from Quito, it offers incredible blue waters and a boat ride to explore the islands.
9) Go Birdwatching in one of the Best Birding Destinations in the World: Mindo
Mindo Cloud Forest: Mindo is a paradise for birdwatchers, with over 500 bird species, including toucans, parrots, quetzals, and the elusive Andean cock-of-the-rock. Join a birding tour or explore the cloud forest on your own.
10) Mountain Bike Down the Andes Mountains
Ecuador offers thrilling downhill biking adventures:
Volcan Chimborazo: Experience the exhilarating 40-kilometer descent from Volcan Chimborazo, passing canyons, ancient Inca barracks, and vicuñas.
Waterfall Route from Baños: Descend through the Andes into the Amazon on the Ruta de las Cascadas, passing canyons, cliffs, and waterfalls.
Cotopaxi Volcano: Enjoy a jaw-rattling descent down Cotopaxi's gravel road, with wild horses often seen amid the Andean scenery.
11) Shop for One-of-a-Kind Artisan Crafts in Ecuador
Otavalo Market: Explore one of South America's largest and most renowned markets, known for textiles, clothing, jewelry, and more. Visit on Wednesdays and Saturdays for the full market experience.
Panama Hats: Discover the famous "Panama Hat" (actually an Ecuadorian product) in Montecristi or Cuenca, where you can visit hat factories and museums.
Gualaceo, Chordeleg, and Sigsig: These towns offer intimate shopping experiences, with artisans producing unique crafts and jewelry. Chordeleg, in particular, is known for its jewelry shops and artisanal goods.
12) Swing off the End of the World
Casa del Arbol in Baños: Swing at the end of the world in Baños at the famous Casa del Arbol. This swing, perched on the edge of a cliff, offers breathtaking views and is a must-do activity in this adventure-filled town. Swing tickets cost $1, and you can reach it by bus, shuttle van, or even a hike from Baños.
Swing over Quito: For an adrenaline rush with a view of Quito, try the swing on the Pichincha Volcano. Accessible by the TeleferiQo cable car, this swing lets you soar high above the capital city.
Quilotoa Crater Swing: Swing out over the stunning Quilotoa Crater and its crater lake. Reach the swing via a short hike down into the crater, and experience a few minutes of awe-inspiring swinging. You can visit Quilotoa as a day trip from Quito or as part of the Quilotoa Loop trek.
13) Stretch Yourself Across the Equator Line
Ecuador is named after the equator, and visiting this geographic line is a fun and unique experience. The most famous equator site is Mitad del Mundo near Quito, where you can stand on both sides of the Earth's hemispheres. Nearby, the Museo Solar Intiñan offers entertaining experiments along the equator.
14) Take a Dip in Ecuador’s Volcanic Thermal Pools
Ecuador's volcanic terrain gives rise to numerous thermal pools perfect for relaxation. Consider these options:
- Papallacta: A popular escape from Quito with stunning volcano views and multiple thermal pools.
- Baños: Known as the "Bathing Town," it offers various thermal pools and spas. Don't miss a soak at Las Piscinas de la Virgen.
- Piedra de Agua: Located on the outskirts of Cuenca, this spa in the Baños of Azuay province offers a 90-minute "spa circuit" with treatments like steam therapy and volcanic mud exfoliation, followed by relaxation in warm outdoor mineral pools.
15) Go Ziplining through the Cloud Forest
Mindo, located in the cloud forest, offers an unforgettable ziplining experience. The Mindo canopy tours feature ten zip lines totaling 3,640 meters in length. Enjoy soaring through the treetops and spotting toucans in this lush environment. This adventure is both thrilling and affordable, with a cost of $20 USD.
16) Don’t Only Admire Ecuador’s Churches, Experience Them
Ecuador's churches offer more than just architectural beauty. Climb the towers of the Basilica del Voto Nacional in Quito for sweeping city views and even enjoy a drink at a hidden cafe.
Explore the Cathedral de la Inmaculada in Cuenca to access bell towers and take in the blue domes. Discover the oldest Catholic church in Ecuador, the Balbanera Church near Riobamba, and experience locking and unlocking its 500-year-old door.
17) Go Whitewater Rafting from the Mountains to the Jungle
Ecuador's diverse geography provides excellent whitewater rafting opportunities:
- Tena: In the Amazon basin, Tena serves as a base for rafting adventures on the Jatunyacu River, offering mild class III+ rapids in a jungle setting.
- Baños: Experience class III & IV rapids on the Pastaza River amid stunning canyon walls in Baños. Rafting tours in Baños are very affordable, typically priced between $30-$50.
- Mindo: Enjoy a unique tubing-rafting experience in Mindo's cloud forest. Multiple innertubes are roped together to create makeshift rafts for an exhilarating ride down the river.
Ecuador's diverse landscapes offer a wide range of exciting and cultural experiences. Whether you're seeking adventure, relaxation, or unique cultural encounters, Ecuador has something to offer every traveler.
18) Stroll Guayaquil’s Impressive Malecón
Malecón 2000 in Guayaquil is a stunning waterfront boardwalk that stretches for 2.5 kilometers along the River Guayas. It offers excellent views, gardens, monuments, museums, restaurants, artisanal markets, and shopping malls. Some highlights include:
- La Perla: This 57-meter high Ferris wheel is touted as the largest in South America, offering panoramic views of Guayaquil.
- Barco Morgan: A pirate ship that takes passengers on a cruise up the Guayas River, offering scenic views of the Malecón. Some options even include unlimited drinks.
- Iguana Park: Located just a short walk from Malecón 2000, this park is home to free-roaming iguanas, providing a unique opportunity to observe these reptiles.
- Santa Ana Neighborhood: Explore the colorful and historic Santa Ana neighborhood at the other end of the Malecón.
19) Eat Delicious Local Ecuadorian Cuisine
Ecuador offers a diverse range of local dishes influenced by its various regions. Here are some must-try Ecuadorian dishes:
- Ceviche: Ecuadorian ceviche is known for its saucy and soupy style. It's typically served with seafood like fish, shrimp, or octopus, marinated in tangy citrus juices.
- Hornado: A whole roasted pig with tender, well-seasoned meat, crispy skin, and traditional sides like mote (hominy), llapingachos (potato pancakes), and vegetables.
- Cuy: Guinea pig, known as "cuy," is a specialty in the southern highlands of Ecuador. It's often roasted and served as a delicacy.
- Fritada: Chunks of well-seasoned fried pork, often served in highland locations like Quito, Otavalo, and Gualaceo.
- Locro de Papa: A hearty potato soup with cheese and avocado, commonly found in the highlands, especially around Quito.
- Churrasco: Ecuadorian steak and eggs, a favorite dish found throughout the highlands.
- Bolon: Fried balls made from plantains and cheese, a delicious breakfast option along the coast and in the Galapagos.
- Encebollado: A fish stew considered a national dish, often eaten in the mornings and believed to help cure hangovers.
- Cangrejo Criollo: Creole crab, a local specialty in Guayaquil.
20) Take a Scenic Rail Journey through the Andes (Returning in 2023)
Ecuador boasts some of the world's most beautiful rail routes. These scenic train journeys offer a unique way to explore the country's landscapes and culture. While these trains have temporarily ceased operations, they are expected to reopen in 2023. Some of the notable routes include:
- Devil's Nose Train: This famous train journey features a series of switchbacks to ascend a vertical cliff known as the Devil's Nose, offering breathtaking views.
- Ice Train (Tren de Hielo I): This journey winds through the Andes from Riobamba to Urbina, offering views of Volcán Chimborazo. It includes a stop in Urbina, Ecuador's highest train station, where you can meet Baltazar Ushca, the last ice merchant.
- Other Scenic Routes: Ecuador offers several other scenic train routes, including the Tren de la Libertad, Tren de Hielo 2, Tren de los Volcanos, and Tren de la Dulzura.
Best Places to Visit in Ecuador
Ecuador offers a wide range of destinations to explore. Here's a suggested itinerary to consider:
- Quito (2-4 days): Explore the capital city, visit historic sites, and enjoy local cuisine.
- Mindo (1-3 days): Discover the unique cloud forest environment and enjoy outdoor activities.
- Amazon (3-5 days): Immerse yourself in the Amazon rainforest, explore wildlife, and learn about indigenous cultures.
- Baños (1-3 days): Experience adventure activities and relax in thermal pools.
- Quilotoa Loop trek (3-4 days): Trek the beautiful Quilotoa Loop, visiting indigenous villages and the Quilotoa Crater.
- Riobamba (1-3 days): Explore the town and use it as a base for the Devil's Nose Train.
- Alausi (Devil's Nose Train, 1 day): Experience the thrilling Devil's Nose Train journey.
- Cuenca (2-4 days): Discover the colonial city, visit churches, and explore nearby attractions.
- Guayaquil (1-2 days): Enjoy the Malecón 2000, visit Iguana Park, and explore the city.
- Beach (Salinas or Montañita): Relax on the beautiful beaches of Ecuador's coast.
- Galapagos Islands (1-2 weeks): Embark on a unique adventure in the Galapagos, exploring its diverse wildlife and landscapes.
Remember, Ecuador offers incredible diversity, so tailor your itinerary based on your interests and the time you have available.
How to Travel Around Ecuador
Ecuador provides various transportation options:
- Public buses: Inexpensive and widely available, ideal for budget travelers.
- Shuttle buses: More comfortable than public buses and suitable for specific routes.
- Hop-on-hop-off tour buses: Offer convenience and flexibility for travelers who prefer guided experiences.
- Guided tours: Perfect for those who want hassle-free travel with knowledgeable guides.
- Flights: Domestic flights are available for longer distances and can save time.
Choose the transportation mode that suits your preferences, budget, and itinerary.
Ecuador is a country filled with natural beauty, cultural richness, and adventure opportunities. Enjoy your travels in this diverse and captivating destination!