Our guide on what to do in Ecuador

While you might think a country as small as Ecuador, the fourth smallest in South America (about the size of the state of Nevada and three-quarters the size of Germany) wouldn’t require much time, think again. There are so many things to do in Ecuador, you could spend a lifetime in the country and not experience it all. Its diverse terrain makes it ideal for countless outdoor activities, from hiking, rafting and canoeing to big thrills like zip lining. Straddling the equator on the west coast of South America, its diverse landscapes encompass everything from the wildlife-filled Galapagos Islands to the Andean highlands, volcanoes and the Amazon jungle, not to mention beautiful beaches along the Pacific. That doesn’t even include the cities and villages which offer plenty of attractions on their own. Sitting at an elevation of more than 9,350 feet in the Andean foothills, the capital city of Quito is known for its magnificently well-preserved Spanish colonial center with 16th- and 17th-century buildings, including palaces and cathedrals like the Church of the Society of Jesus, colloquially known as Compañía, with its large central nave. The entire city of Cunenca is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, while Banos offers soothing hot springs.

One of the world’s most biodiverse nations, Ecuador is home to more than 100 types of hummingbirds and thousands of orchid varieties, along with everything from famous reptiles like the Galapagos giant tortoise, birds like blue-footed boobies and colourful toucans to mammals, including numerous monkey species and jaguars. Visitors can also take advantage of opportunities to get to know the country’s indigenous communities and even meet a local shaman.

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Maite Paz

I have been designing trips to my home country of Ecuador for over 20 years. Traveling itself has always felt like magic to me: my mind is always on travel, but my heart is forever in the Galapagos as it never fails to surprise me.

Maite Paz

Latin America Specialist

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Best activities to do in Ecuador

Ecuador has a huge range of outdoor pursuits, history, culture and food to enjoy. To help you narrow it down we have put together a list of some of our favorites.

Devils Nose Train Ecuador

Ride the Devil’s Nose Train

Running along a stretch of the Trans-Andean railroad, the Devil’s Nose Train has been referred to as “one of the finest and most daring feats of engineering.”  It’s something you can feel in the ride which travels from the town of Alausi on a 45-minute journey to Silambe through breath-taking mountain scenery with the train descending nearly two-thirds of a mile in height. It’s even more impressive considering it was built just after the turn of the 20th-century. Construction on the line began in 1872 and was completed in 1905, connecting parts of Ecuador’s northern coast to the Andean region before continuing south to Cuenca. While some of those sections no longer function, the main route between Quito and Guayaquil was refurbished in 2007. Taking the entire thing is very expensive but the segment between Alausi and Silambe is affordable and the most exciting part by far.

Otavalo Ecuador

Check Out the Colorful Markets in Otavalo

Otavalo, a small mountain town outside of Quito, is world-famous for its colourful markets. While referred to collectively as the Otavalo Market, it’s made up of several markets as the largest of its kind in South America. The wares are a testament to the people in the region who have been artisans and weavers since before Incan times. Step into Plaza de Los Ponchos and your senses will immediately be overwhelmed with the brilliant splashes of colour, the vendors who yell out their prices, the kids playing, and the many soft things to touch, like blankets and alpaca sweaters. There is the usual fresh produce too along with rugs, jewellery, bright ponchos, flowers, just about anything you could ever want. While there are a few knock-off “tourist trap” types of items, most are still handmade by indigenous people living in nearby villages.

Cuneca Ecuador

Buy Panama Hats in Cunenca

Cunenca may be most famous for its colonial architecture, with the entire city a UNESCO World Heritage Site sitting at 8,200 feet in elevation. The streets are filled with art and culture, but for those looking for a great hat, you’ll want to head to the Panama hat factory. While you might think Panama hats come from Panama, they’re actually made right here, made from a variety of palm straw known as Carloduvica Palmata, which is where it gets its name. The hat has deep ancestral roots with aborigines along the coast using tocas made from toquilla straw to protect themselves from the sun. The lightness of the fibre made the straw ideal for making the hats that have become a symbol for Ecuador. Homer Ortega is a producer in Cunenca that offers tours, the opportunity to purchase, and even a museum where you can learn more about the hats and their history.

Amazon Ecuador

Explore the Canopy of the Amazon Rainforest

The Ecuadorian Amazon is home to one of the planet’s most biodiverse places, Yasuni National Park which covers nearly 3,800 square miles and boasts nearly 600 different bird species, including toucans and scarlet macaws. There are 200 species of mammals, including the world’s smallest monkey, the pygmy marmoset, over 120 reptile species such as the emerald tree boa, 100,000+ insect species, 150 amphibian species, and over 380 fish species. The rainforest canopy is believed to be the richest level for forest life with trees that can grow as high as 145 feet. As they spread to catch the light, they form a canopy that creates a habitat for all sorts of flora and fauna. Multiple lodges offer special observation towers where you can look right into the canopy, watching for birds like the harpy eagle and other wildlife. There are also canopy tours that include swing bridges and ziplines for another perspective too.

Canoe Amazon Ecuador

Canoeing through the Amazon

Canoeing through the Amazon provides an entirely different perspective of the rainforest. In fact, it may be the best way to explore the region, serenely gliding through the dark, mysterious waters surrendering your senses to the soundtrack of the jungle. While the Amazon River itself flows through six provinces in Ecuador, most trips are taken on one of its many tributaries like the Napo River east of Coca. The Napo River is flanked by the Yasuni, Cuyabeno, and Limoncocha Reserves, with many wildlife watching opportunities right in and around the river itself. A stay in one of the multiple rainforest lodges is the best way to do it, with the excursions typically included. Sani Lodge is run by a local indigenous tribe and includes many activities like canoeing. You’ll even be picked up at Coca airport for the long journey by canoe to reach the lodge

Cotopaxi volcano Ecuador

Visit an Active Volcano at Cotopaxi National Park

Cotopaxi is the highest active volcano in Ecuador, and the third-highest in the world at more than 19,347 feet above sea level. It’s easy to reach from Quito on your own or by joining tour, providing the opportunity to climb, hike, horseback ride, mountain bike, or just take in the incredible view. The hike to the Jose Rivas Shelter is one of the most popular things to do, located at 15,958 feet above sea level. It’s challenging due to the sand but sits just 1,300 feet from the last parking lot, taking about one to two hours to reach. For those who don’t do well with the high elevation or haven’t been acclimated yet, walking around Lake Limpiopungo also provides a fabulous view of the volcano when it isn’t covered by clouds.

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