Ecuador is where this whole expat journey of mine began. It wasn't the home I chose for myself but instead where I was placed as a Peace Corps volunteer. Although it wasn't on my radar at the time, it was a country I quickly fell in love with.
Two and a half years flew by. So fast that I thought I still wasn't ready to move on. There are a lot of reasons Ecuador was the perfect country for me to start my expat journey but one of the highlights is certainly the landscape.
Ecuador is an incredibly beautiful country and one that's super easy to explore thoroughly. It's small - a little smaller than Nevada or Italy - but given its shape, it's fairly compact. In one of my busiest weeks there, I went from the coast to the Andes Mountains to the rainforest to the Galapagos. Although I'm an avid slow traveler and don't recommend you rush your way through a country like that, in Ecuador it's actually possible.
Given its geographical location, it's home to 4 distinct ecosystems (and in such a small space!):
- The jagged peaks of the Andes Mountains
- The long Pacific coastline
- The lush Amazon Rainforest
- The totally unique Galapagos Islands
Alongside its neighbors Colombia and Peru, it's one of the world's most biodiverse countries. With so much going on, it's no wonder there are so many stunning places to visit in Ecuador. I've done my best to narrow it down to my personal favorite spots but trust me, if you have the time, there are far more stunning places to visit.
A Note on the Weather
You might be stressing about the best time to visit Ecuador. While there's more to it than this, a big thing to keep in mind is that countries near the equator don't have 4 seasons. Instead, their climate is based on their altitude.
So, the higher the altitude, the colder it'll be year round. On the flipside, towns at sea level are always hot, the only variety comes with the amount of rain it gets each month.
Things to Know Before You Go
Now that you’re gearing up for your trip and planning the specifics of where and when you’ll go, there are a few things you don’t need to overlook.
I know just how easy it is to look towards the big hike, bucket list city, or beach of my dreams and forget about all of the little things in between that’ll make your trip run as smoothly as possible. Be sure to take into consideration these few things before you go to make sure you get all the good bits of your trip without the stress.
- Make sure you have travel insurance. A good travel insurance, like SafetyWing, will ensure you’re covered in case of emergencies. While you will have to pay upfront for your doctor or hospital costs, unless it’s for a pre-existing condition, you can file a claim and should be reimbursed. For any Americans reading this, fear not, healthcare in pretty much every other country is far more affordable than ours, even if you’re paying out of pocket.
- Do your best to learn a few local phrases in their language. No, I’m not expecting you to be able to have a fluid conversation with locals at the bus stop if you’re just visiting their country for a week but knowing your numbers (for prices), how to order something (“I would like…”), and basic greetings really will take you a long way. Mondly is a great app for phrases and vocabulary.
- Book any popular tours you want to do in advance. I’m really not a great planner and I’ve made this mistake more times than I can count. I plan a trip to a destination knowing that I want to do a sailboat trip or food tour and wait until the day before to book only to realize it’s not available the day I’m in town. Don’t make that mistake - if there is something you know you want to do - book your tour in advance.
- Last tip certainly isn’t mandatory but it is helpful. Before you start booking your flights, hotels, and tours, consider opening up a travel credit card. Thanks to our Capital One Venture card, my husband and I have gotten countless free flights just by gaining points on everyday expenses.
How to Travel within Ecuador
By Local Bus
Traveling within Ecuador is fairly easy but you will need to put a whole lot of trust in the hands of the local bus drivers. And those people drive as if their first born will be sacrificed if they don't arrive at a certain time.
While this is nerve-racking anywhere in the country, it's especially so if you're traversing from one mountain town to another on the curvy, windy roads. That being said, I wouldn't recommend a seat in the front where you can really see where you're going. Instead, choose ignorance and grab a seat in the middle of the bus.
While these buses are literally a wild ride, the best time to take one is at night. Getting from Point A to Point B in Ecuador might take longer than it looks on the map given the road conditions and lack of major highways so if it's a longer ride, book a night bus so you don't waste one of your travel days.
By Private Car
It's also possible to rent a car and drive yourself. It's a great way to have some freedom in your itinerary. I'd definitely recommend it on the coast. The road hugs the Pacific Ocean and will take you through countless towns to stop at. If you're driving through the mountains, I wouldn't recommend it unless you have previous experience driving through South America.
If you'd like the privacy and comfort of a car but don't want to drive yourself, you can always book a driver. This is common if you're driving between two relatively known tourist destinations.
It's also possible to fly within the country. Unless you're going between major cities like Guayaquil and Quito, you'll most likely be on relatively small plane. This isn't a problem unless you happen to have a fear of flying.
Alright, now that you know how you'll travel, let's dive into the good stuff and decide where you'll visit in Ecuador.
Best Places to Visit in the Mountains
Given that Ecuador sits on the equator (get the country's name now?), you probably don't associate the country with snowy mountains. You're in for a treat! This country has some incredible mountain towns, some warm, some incredibly cold, for you to visit.
Starting in the north of the country, Otavalo is home to the largest market in South America in Plaza de los Ponchos. You'll be hard pressed to find a better place in Ecuador to pick up local goods for your friends, family, and of course, yourself.
While some items might look mass produced, you can certainly find artisanal items here, you just might have a look a little harder.
If you're more interested in leather goods than textile one, head a little farther north to the small town of Cotacachi.
When shopping, it's important you realize that bargaining is a part of the culture in Latin America and many people will expect you to do it. There is a craft to this so it might take some time to get used to it but if you do it with charisma and without trying to buy the item for pennies, the locals welcomingly accept the challenge. If it's a hand-crafted piece, know that your money spent directly supports the artisan.
Although in the mountain region, Mindo is actually a cloud forest. This ecosystem is highly rare, as cloud forests are only found in a few countries in the world. Just for that alone, it's worth the visit.
The landscape is green and lush due due to all of the rain. There are plenty of waterfalls to see and it's the perfect place to go rafting if you want an adrenaline rush.
Mindo is also one of the best places for bird watching, butterflies, and orchids. It's a real paradise for nature lovers looking to relax or enjoy watersports.
Welcome to Ecuador's capital city, Quito. Although I'm typically a bigger fan of nature and small towns, Quito has a lot of charm and hosts plenty of great things to do. In my opinion, it's one of the best places to visit in South America as a whole. Quito is also the second highest capital city in the world, behind La Paz, Bolivia, at 2,784 meters or 9,133 feet above sea level. Keep that in mind when you arrive - you might need some time to acclimate before you take on the city's hills without getting winded.
Quito hosts many modern amenities, malls, and things you'll find in any number of cities throughout the world but the real charm lies in the cobbled streets in the Old Town, or Centro Histórico. I highly recommend you booking a place to stay in this area and explore the colonial architecture by foot.
While in Quito's Old Town, be sure to visit:
- Take a look at La Campaña
- Stroll down La Ronda
- Go inside Basílica del Voto Nacional for great views
If you're interested in Inca heritage or that of other indigenous groups, there's a plethora of museums to choose between.
Keep in mind that since this is the biggest tourist destination in Quito, you may encounter more pickpockets or petty theft here. This isn't to deter you from visiting but instead as a reminder to keep your belongings in your site and don't leave your phone hanging out of your back pocket or your bookbag draped on your seat while eating or grabbing a drink.
If you want some fresh air while in Quito, get outside in one of these places:
- Carolinas Park - this city park is a great place to take a break and people watch
- Take the Quito Teleferico - I recommend wearing your hiking boots and summiting Rucu Pichincha but do note it's a challenging hike with the summit at 4,698 m or 15,413 ft above sea level.
Cotopaxi National Park
Another claim to fame, Ecuador is home to the 3rd highest active volcano in the world: Cotopaxi Volcano. Just seeing this beauty in person is something you'll hardly forget.
Although not Ecuador's highest peak (that's Chimborazo), Cotopaxi reaches 5,897 m or 19,347 ft. While it's possible to summit Cotopaxi, it's a highly technical hike and one that you should only attempt if you feel truly prepared. You'll need to take into account the snow/ice, altitude, and physical strength needed to do so.
Regardless of if you decide to hike it or not, I highly recommend staying a night or two just outside of the national park so you can enjoy the stunning views, clean mountain air, and star-speckled nights.
If you want to do a hike in the area, I recommend Rumiñawi. This hike is similar to Rucu Pichincha and can either be done to help acclimate you for Cotopaxi or in lieu of.
Heading farther south along the ridge of the Andes Mountain is this stunning crater lake. Quilotoa is so shocking due to it's brightly hued water, which contrasts greatly to the stony walled sides of it. Swimming isn't allowed here but you can rent kayaks and explore the lake that way.
You can visit Quilotoa as a short day trip and simply walk to the base of the lake and back up (or just eye it from the rim) or you can turn it into a multi-day adventure and embark on the Quilotoa Loop Trail. This route typically starts and ends in Latacunga and takes you through remote villages and epic views.
Salinas de Guaranda doesn't make it on many lists as a popular tourist destination but there's a lot to love in this small town, mainly if you adore cheese and chocolate like I do.
If you're looking for a place in Ecuador that's off the radar of many travelers and one where you can directly support the local economy, it's this town. Here you can go on tours of their cheese factory, learn how to make chocolate (you have to try the white fruit inside of cocoa plants!), and see how wool is spun into yarn.
Plus, if you're in town for Carnival, the party here will not disappoint. Locals flock to this town during Carnival and you should, too. Get ready for foam, colored flour, and plenty of water to be thrown on you during the festivities. Stock up with your own supply and join in on the fun!
When I lived in Ecuador, Cuenca was by far one of my favorite places to visit and it still gets my vote as the best place to live in Ecuador. I loved this city and couldn't get enough of it! Part of the reason I loved it so much is simply for it's beauty. The colonial architecture of the city is well-preserved and makes walking around aimlessly a pure joy.
Every time I'd get my first glimpse at the blue domed roofs at Cuenca's New Cathedral, I'd get a little giddy. Between the architecture, beautiful landscape, and rich culture, Cuenca is a place most travelers fall in love with.
Cuenca’s Tomebamba riverfront is a great place to relax, enjoy the fresh air, and take a rest in the sun. I recommend finding a sun patch of grass and bringing a book to truly enjoy the ambiance for an hour or two.
You can also visit the Pumapungo Archaeological Park to see the largest remaining Incan ruins. Although not nearly as impressive as other historical sites in Central and South America, it's a good place to visit in Ecuador if you're interested in learning about its ancient history.
The real reason I loved Cuenca so much? Las Cajas National Park! As you can see by now, I'm an avid hiker and love nothing more than a city that combines aesthetically pleasing architecture with equally as pleasing natural surroundings. There are a big number of hikes in the park, ranging from easy to difficult, so you'll be sure to find something to fit your interests. Just get ready for a landscape that looks otherworldly!
Loja, located in southern Ecuador, is known as the music capital of the country, although there's more to this city than just that. For starters, there's a city gate marking the entrance of the city that looks far more European than Latino.
Although still in the mountains, Loja feels warmer and looks more lush than much of the highlands. While in Loja, spend some time in San Sebastian Independence Plaza. The brightly painted balconied houses are a real treat.
If you're eager to see more that the surrounding area has to offer, plan a trip to Podocarpus National Forest. This park is known as the Botanical Garden of America and is a great place to see a variety of flowers, birds, and mammals.
Best Places to Visit Along the Coast
After enjoying all that the Andes Mountains have to offer in Ecuador, let's head to the Pacific Ocean to explore the best places to visit in coastal Ecuador.
If you'd rather spend your entire trip on the coast, the best way to experience it is by driving it. The entire coast of Ecuador runs along the ruta del sol, or sun route. You can start at the border of Colombia and make it to the border of Peru without making but just a few turns which is pretty incredible.
There are countless small towns that litter the sun route but these are my top recommendations for places to visit in Ecuador along the coast.
Esmeraldas is a larger city and is the hub of Afro-Ecuadorian culture. The nightlife and food in this city really shine. While in Esmeraldas, you need to do yourself a favor and try the local dish, encocao. Encocao is a stew made from coconut milk and fish or other seafood. It's usually served over a bed of rice and fried plantain chips (platanitos).
While Esmeraldas is in the so-called Green Providence, you won't see much of that in the city itself but you'll be rewarded with lush, junglesque beaches just outside of it.
Mompiche is one of those beaches. While you won't find much of the excitement as in Esmeraldas, that's part of the charm here. This laid-back fishing village is the perfect to do absolutely nothing but enjoy the ocean and long sandy beach.
You'll really be back to the basics here, so if you're looking to disconnect, do it in Mompiche.
Farther south along the ruta del solo, and you'll run into Puerto Lopez. Still a small fishing town, it fits in between Mompiche and Esmeraldas in terms of traffic and things to do. I took my family here on one of their visits to Ecuador and they still rave about the seafood meals we'd eat with our toes in the sand and that they're the best they've ever had.
After getting a full belly of fresh seafood, spend the day in Playa de los Frailes in Machalilla National Park. You can take a tuk-tuk up the coast to the national park for just a few dollars. The half moon bay here is stunning but it gets even prettier if you walk the short trail to the look out tower.
During whale season (June-October), Puerto Lopez is the perfect place to go out for a guided tour. The boats get a little too close for comfort at times but if you want to go whale watching on a budget, this is the place to do it.
As far as coastal places to visit in Ecuador go, Ayampe is my favorite. It's incredibly laidback, just like Mompiche and the waves are a bit more epic, but there's something about that just sets me at ease.
It's probably the blue and green stones that replace the sand in some areas.
This is a popular surf town that I imagine will only grow in popularity throughout the years but it's worth a try before travelers flock to this oasis.
Let's end the coastal route on a party note. Montañita is the place to go if you really want to go wild. If you're looking for a laid back spot to catch some rays, this is not the spot for you. It's instead the spot for you to catch rays during the day and stay up all night dancing, drinking, and laughing.
Montañita gained it's popularity as a surf town and has grown into something much more touristic since. In my younger, wilder days, I loved letting loose here, now, I'd head to Ayampe instead.
I lived in a small coastal town near the border of Peru and in all honestly, the beaches farther south than Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city, aren't worth the effort. There's a lot of mangroves and small, quiet beaches but the beaches farther north are far more picturesque.
Best Places to Visit in the Amazon
The Amazon only touches Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. So, if you dream of seeing this paradise in person, you have to do it from one of these countries.
One of the most epic adventures of my life was backpacking from Ecuador Amazon's to Iquitos, Peru. We stuck to the river route and given that this was 10 years ago, internet was impossible to come by and we hitchhiked much of the way. This took us to a remote jungle town in Peru where we had a volunteer gig lined up on Workaway.
My point here - if the great outdoors is your friend, you'll love the Amazon.
Summiting Sumaco Volcano was the muddiest yet most fun 3 days I could have asked for. Organized with a group of friends, we paid a local guide to take us through the dense jungle to the peak.
Imagine hiking in rain boots, all your gear on your back, and a machete in your hand. That's what this hike looks like.
If you can't go to sleep dirty and don't quite like the way of hacking your way through dense vegetation, I'd skip this, but if you're eyes lit up while reading this, make this trip a priority. You'll need to do a little forward planning though as they limit the amount of people on this trail since you have to sleep overnight at the little huts along the way.
Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve
The next national park listed is the most well-known in Ecuador but this one is just nearby and a fraction of the cost to visit. Although much of the country is has incredible biodiversity, it's nowhere as apparent as in the Amazon and wildlife reserves like this one.
You can only explore the area with a local guide, which is really the best way to see the area as they're able to teach you things you definitely won't know on your own and spot wildlife you probably overlooked.
Here you can go on day hikes, take a canoe tour, visit a local community, and even do a night walk...if you dare!
Yasuní National Park
Yasuní is the true gem of the Amazon in Ecuador. It's regarded as the single most biodiverse place in the entire world, which is really something to wrap your head around. Located at the Amazon Basin but also the base of the Andes and the equatorial line, this unique location is what makes the area so rich.
Although only 250 kilometers or 155 miles from Quito, you'll feel much farther away, partially because it's quite the journey to get there. You'll need to get to the river town Coca and take a boat to Yasuní from there.
You'll need prior permission to enter the park and have to have your accommodation already sorted. This is the costly part of visiting since there are only a handful of luxury places to stay.
If you find that too complicated or expensive, some tours from Coca will go around the park so you'll get a similar experience without needing to deal with the logistics of actually getting there.
Baños de Agua Santa
Baños is definitely the adventure capital of Ecuador. With mountain biking, hot springs, ATV tours, waterfalls, and bungee jumping, there's a lot of fun activities waiting for you here. It's easily one of the biggest Ecuador tourist attractions.
One of the most popular things to do in Baños is to bike the ruta de las cascadas, or waterfall route. This is 25km or 15 miles downhill biking trail towards Puyo. Yep, that's right you get to take in the sights flying downhill, stopping at waterfalls along the way. The most notable is Paílón del Diablo, or Devil's Cauldron.
After you make it to the ending point, you can toss your bike in one of the many pick-up trucks and hitch a ride back to town.
Best Places to Visit in the Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands is by far the most popular place to visit in Ecuador and for good reason. The islands themselves are unlike any other I've seen, and I love a good island getaway. When there you can really understand why Charles Darwin knew he had stumbled upon somewhere mind-blowing.
The entire island chain is part of the Galápagos National Park and requires an entrance fee at the airport.
The most popular island to stay while in the Galapagos Islands is Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz is the hub for visiting the other islands and the plethora of luxury cruise ships that'll take you to them. Well, I use the word "cruise" lightly - more likely you'll be on a smaller yacht.
In Santa Cruz, there's still plenty to do even if you don't take daily boat trips to other islands (although the boat trips are killer).
While in Santa Cruz, be sure to:
- Visit Puerto Ayora - this small port will give you your first glance at the local sea lions begging for fish from the fisherman coming in for a day out on sea.
- Charles Darwin Research Center - see the giant tortoises that confounded Charles Darwin and learn more about his research here.
- Tortuga Bay - it's a bit of a walk down a long boardwalk to get here but it's really worth it, just don't try carrying a heavy cooler like we did. You'll be created by loads of marine iguanas and you just might end up bodysurfing some waves with the sea lions.
The landscape of this island is what makes it a truly fascinating place. Once the island gets into sight, you'll immediately see a giant rock formation that looks like two praying hands. Years later, my dad's snap of this is still the background on his phone.
While I loved visiting this island for the landscape, the flora and fauna is what blew me away. After walking around the island, our boat anchored a bit of the shore from one of the beaches. We could hop in and snorkel around and make our way to the beach if we wanted.
Of course we had to explore every possible inch.
Here is where we swam with the Galapagos penguins. Seeing packs of these guys in the water with 10s of sea lions snoozing just on the beach made me feel as though I was in an aquarium.
South Plaza Island
Another great island accessible from Santa Cruz is South Plaza Island. South Plaza Island is uniquely covered in a red carpetweeds. This vibrancy contrasts beautifully to the clear blue water and white sand.
This island is also home to a large population of Blue Footed Boobies. While I'm not an bird fanatic, it was really cool to see them in real life. The stunning color of their feet is also a cute surprise.
While there's plenty more to experience in the Galápagos Islands, these spots were relatively easy to get to but seriously special. The only thing I wish I would have done while there is scuba dive to see even more of the unique aquatic life around the islands.
Which of These 22 Places to Visit in Ecuador Will You Visit?
From the best attractions to the coolest hidden gems, there's so much to see and do in Ecuador. This country has a more diverse landscape than countries far larger than it, making it an even better place to add to your South America travel list.
With little ground to cover, you can see a wide variety without needing to travel too far in between stops.
While I love the entire continent, Ecuador will always hold a special place in my heart and I think you now can see why.