Many of South America’s biggest hits can be found in Ecuador – from the Andean peaks and the Amazon to tropical beaches, Inca ruins, colonial towns and the wonders of the Galapagos Islands. Not bad for a country the size of Colorado!
The big question is where to start? To help you on your way, here are the best places to visit in Ecuador, from bustling towns to wilderness getaways.
Quito, the vibrant capital of Ecuador
Dotted with a mountainous valley and surrounded by volcanoes, Quito is quite a sight. The Ecuadorian capital is a fascinating mix of cultures and a living museum of the architecture of the Spanish era. For the full panorama, take the TelefériQo gondola to the Pichincha volcano, but allow yourself a day or two to acclimatize to Quito’s high altitude before venturing to the heights.
Another must-see is Quito’s markets. Watch shamanic healers practice their craft at Mercado San Francisco, before sampling local delicacies such as dads loco (pot of potatoes), roast guinea pig soup and cow’s feet. And when the sun goes down? Head to La Ronda, a former red light district turned entertainment district, which features live music and plenty of cozy bars.
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Stand on the equator
Straddling the equator – hence its name – Ecuador is one of the few places where travelers can take photos of themselves with one foot in either hemisphere. A huge granite monument nicknamed Mitad del Mundo (“the middle of the world”) marks the location of the equator north of Quito – only it’s in the wrong place.
Modern GPS sets the record straight, setting the true equator by the Museo Solar Inti Ñan. Guides here will show you the water swirling differently on either side of the line, as well as other fun demonstrations relating to the equator. You will have to decide for yourself whether this is just a smoke and mirror illusion or a real scientific phenomenon.
Volcanic adventures in Baños
Baños is the place to go if you like to live dangerously. Its main draw is the menacing Tungurahua volcano, which has been spitting lava and ash since the 1990s, periodically forcing residents to flee. Why are they coming back? Well, the volcano also heats the thermal baths that the city is named after and for which it is revered. The steamy spas are very restorative after a day of hiking, rafting or mountain biking through the surrounding forests.
Nature encounters at L’Oriente
Raindrops crackling on the leaves, toucans soaring between the trees, lush greenery on all sides – L’Oriente is a must-have for any naturalist. This humid hotbed of biodiversity is where the cloud forests bordering the Andes plunge into the Amazon. Over 1,600 species of birds are found here, giving voice to one of the most glorious dawn choirs on the planet. Hidden in trees like the dens of Bond’s villains are wonderful eco-lodges like Mashpi, which offer guided nature walks and canoe trips, with the proceeds helping fund conservation.
Hike along the avenue of the volcanoes
A little anecdote: the point on Earth closest to the Sun is in Ecuador. These bragging rights belong to the 6,263 m (20,549 ft) Chimborazo volcano. It is not the highest peak on the planet – it is Mount Everest in Nepal – but due to a phenomenon known as the equatorial bulge, the planet is not perfectly spherical and the top of Chimborazo is actually closer to the sun than anywhere else.
Chimborazo is one of eight snow-capped peaks that line the so-called Avenue of the Volcanoes, which runs down the Equator like a gnarled spine. All of these peaks are incredible to climb or get around – if your body can handle the dizzying heights. Take it slowly to acclimatize yourself; herds of vicuñas, a wild relative of the domestic lama, will keep you company along the way.
Find architectural treasures in Cuenca
The most beautiful city in Ecuador, Cuenca has a year-round spring climate and some of the best-preserved colonial architecture in South America. Its ornate buildings, leafy plazas and blue-domed Immaculate Conception Cathedral have helped the city earn a rightful place on the Unesco World Heritage List.
Brutalist Museo Pumapungo proves that Cuenca has a modern outlook as well, housing a fine collection of contemporary art. In the city’s backyard is Cajas National Park, a mountainous wildlife reserve with alpacas, Andean condors, and giant hummingbirds. It’s a great sample tray of what Ecuador has to offer.
Slow down the devil’s nose
A railway that zigzags up the side of a mountain, the Devil’s Nose is a must-see for train enthusiasts. Originally built to bring fresh produce from the tropics to the Andes, it’s now a glorified round-trip tourist attraction with a Disney puff on it. Still, it’s hard not to be impressed by the engineering behind this dizzying railroad line and the sheer daring of laying the track so close to a rocky precipice. The railroad closed during the pandemic, but assuming it reopens normally, book tickets well in advance as they sell out quickly.
Discover pre-colonial Ecuador in Ingapirca
For a glimpse into the country’s pre-colonial history, head to Ingapirca, where llamas graze among Ecuador’s best-preserved ruins. The colony was originally inhabited by the Canary people before the arrival of the marauding Incas. The Spanish settlers would later reduce the place to rubble, but enough remains to give an idea of its former greatness. Coming with a guide will add color and context to a tour of the ruins; agencies in Cuenca organize regular trips to the site.
Shop for local crafts in Otavalo
This quaint little town is home to one of South America’s largest permanent markets. A one-stop-shop for alpaca wool clothing, handmade Ecuadorian jewelry, indigenous art and other products made by the native Otavaleños people, this is a great place to shop for souvenirs before returning home. self. And it’s easy to get to from Quito by local bus (two hours each way).
Meet the wild inhabitants of the Galapagos Islands
You could be forgiven for arriving on the islands of the Galapagos Archipelago and wondering why all the fuss. In places, the archipelago looks more like a desert than a hotbed of biodiversity, but it gradually reveals its secrets – especially when you slip under the waves. Here, sea lions pirouettes, stealth sharks, majestic rays, colorful fish, diving pelicans, swimming iguanas, whales, penguins and much more await you.
Don’t try to do it yourself. Book a cruise and let resident naturalists provide the context to help you understand this remarkable and one-of-a-kind ecosystem. They’ll also tell you about evolutionary wonders that you would have otherwise missed.
Cultural meetings in Guayaquil
Ecuador’s beating commercial heart, Guayaquil won’t win top prize in many beauty pageants, but its burgeoning cultural scene, bustling bars, and revitalized neighborhoods are reason enough to hang around. The public square known as Malecón offers a masterclass in urban renewal; this rebooted riverside promenade is lined with sculptures, gardens, and restaurants, and is home to the eccentric Museo en Miniatura, which tells the story of the city using miniature dioramas.
Cerro Santa Ana is another great place to spend an afternoon, with its colorful hillside houses, bars and cafes. Check out the MAAC Theater for plays, concerts, and movies, but don’t expect much in English. For the best food in town, head to the suburb of Urdesa, northwest of the center; for nightlife, try Las Peñas, just north of downtown.
Lounge on Ecuador’s Pacific beaches
The frigid Andes feel far away when you sip a cocktail on Ecuador’s Pacific coast, which is teeming with stunning beaches. The coastal town of Salinas stretches over a beautiful stretch of shoreline, and it has a decent nightlife scene, making it popular with locals and tourists alike.
More laid back and less developed is the ramshackle seaside village of Montañita; its cheap digs, decent waves, and party vibe attract a constant stream of tanned backpackers. To escape the crowds, discover the low-key seaside towns of Ayangue, north of Salinas, or Puerto Cayo, north of Montañita.