Where to go in Ecuador
Ecuador, though small, boasts incredible diversity. In a single day, you can journey from the Pacific coast, offering stunning surf-ready beaches, to the Amazon Rainforest, with Andean volcanoes in between. The extraordinary Galapagos Islands, located around 600 miles offshore, are a must-see. While many fly into Quito and head straight to the archipelago famous for Charles Darwin’s studies, Ecuador has more to offer. Split by the equator, it straddles both hemispheres, providing opportunities to hike through tropical cloud forests, scale volcanoes, raft rivers, and shop for handmade alpaca sweaters at indigenous markets with a rich trading history dating back to pre-Inca times. The abundance of volcanoes means natural hot springs, perfect for unwinding after a day of adventure. Banos, a popular destination, not only offers thermal baths but also heart-pounding thrills like canyon swings, ziplining, rock climbing, and waterfall ascents.
Just about any visit to the Ecuadorian Andes starts in Quito, perched at 9,350 feet above sea level as one of the world’s highest capital cities. Visually stunning, it sits in a valley framed by soaring volcanic peaks and boasts one of the continent’s most well-preserved colonial centers, and the largest in the Americas. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, one could easily spend an entire day or more just wandering the streets. It’s filled with spectacular cathedrals, countless museums, and parks. A walk along Calle la Ronda is a must as one of the most artsy, and oldest, streets in the city. By riding the gondola up nearby Volcan Pichincha, you’ll be able to take in one of the most impressive views of the capital and surrounding volcanoes. In between your exploits, enjoy a cheap but tasty dish at the central market and check out the colorful array of produce.
The Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest covers more than 42,000 square miles of terrain in the country’s eastern region and while that may not be near as much compared to Brazil, where it’s wonderfully underdeveloped. Teeming with life, it’s the ideal place to experience the jungle in its pristine, raw state. Home to astounding biodiversity, the area is inhabited by over 300 species of mammals, including jaguars and monkeys, 35o reptile species like iguanas and anacondas, and an estimated 1600 species of birds, including macaws and toucans. Parks and reserves have been established to protect this ecosystem and each has their own unique attractions like Yasuni National Park which is home to over 500 of the Ecuadorian Amazon’s bird species. There are also eco-lodges run by local indigenous communities where visitors can completely immerse themselves in tribal life, including the opportunity to sample traditional foods and join a variety of wildlife and cultural excursions.
Mindo Cloud Forest
The Mindo Cloud Forest is a 2.5-hour drive from Quito and can be visited on your own by renting a car, or on one of many guided tours. It’s an outdoor adventurer’s dream as well as being home to a wide range of impressive wildlife. A unique ecosystem, the lush subtropical forest is renowned worldwide for its biodiversity, but it’s most famous for its birdwatching with over 500 species. The forest is known for its beautiful orchids and butterflies as well as being home to capuchin monkeys and Andean bears. Many come to enjoy the wide range of activities on offer, including riding a cable car across the lush valley to hike to multiple waterfalls and enjoy a refreshing dip in the tranquil pools that lie beneath. There are heart-pounding zip lines to zoom across and a thrilling Tarzan swing too.
Located in the Andean highlands of northern Ecuador, Otavalo is surrounded by volcanoes and world-famous for its indigenous population. The Otavalos are the most economically successful indigenous group in Latin America, known for their traditional dress, handicrafts, and colorful textiles. Most come here to enjoy the Otavalo Market, or markets, as it’s actually made up of multiple markets. They attract many visitors to browse and buy, with locals from nearly every village in the area coming to trade their goods, from fruits and vegetables to farm animals like goats and llamas. You’ll find handmade alpaca sweaters, wool fedoras, hand-embroidered blouses, colorful straw bags, tapestries, and more. At the Museo de Tejidos El Obraje, one can also learn about the weaving process used by artisans in town and the surrounding area.
Cuenca lies in a valley at nearly 8,200 feet in elevation, known for its magnificent colonial architecture, including the Centre of Santa Ana de los Ríos de Cuenca. In fact, the entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s truly one of the most beautiful in Ecuador. While it was founded as a Spanish settlement in the mid-16th-century, traces of civilization go back more than 10,000 years. Most notably, it was inhabited by the Incas, with ruins that are still visible right within the city. Sometimes referred to as the “Athens of Ecuador,” its colonial streets have a European flair, but the nickname is a reference to the city as a hub of art and culture. Be sure to climb the towers of the New Cathedral for a stunning view of the historic center and soak up the atmosphere in the market.
Cotopaxi National Park
Cotopaxi National Park is home to one of the most active volcanoes in the world, Cotopaxi, which rises 19,347 feet in feet. Part of the “Avenue of the Volcanoes,” a 200-mile ridge that stretches just south of Quito, it’s the most active, having erupted some 50 times since the mid-1700s. It has a nearly perfect conical shape and while it can be viewed from afar, many come to climb it, an option that’s available year-round, but only to those who are very fit and experienced. Other activities include mountain biking across the paramo, hiking, horseback riding, or even camping on its flanks. You’ll see llamas and wild horses on the high Andean paramo while the flat plains below are dotted with volcanic boulders. From just about every vantage point, when clouds aren’t covering it, spectacular views of the snow-dusted crater can be enjoyed.
Banos de Agua Santa
Located adjacent to a jungle and the Tungurahua volcano a few hours south of Quito, the town of Banos de Agua Santa, more often referred to as simply “Banos,” lies at the heart of some of Ecuador’s top adventure sports opportunities. Visitors can climb waterfalls, go whitewater rafting, canyoning, hike volcanoes, rock climb, zipline, and more. The “Swing at the End of the World” is one of the most popular attractions, with swings that you can use to swing off the edge of a canyon. The town gets its name from the many natural hot springs in the area, ideal for a soothing soak after a day of play. Geothermal pools and baths are heated by the volcano’s springs and can be enjoyed at places like La Piscina de La Virgen or Piscina El Salado.
Situated 600 miles off mainland Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands are a volcanic archipelago that has long been considered one of the world’s top wildlife destinations. Thanks to the lack of predators, animals here thrive, and many have never learned to fear humans. Visitors can walk quietly among sea lions and Galapagos giant tortoises which can live to be 150 years old or more. In the water, one can snorkel alongside marine iguanas and other aquatic life, with some of the other popular species for close encounters including blue-footed boobies and Galapagos penguins. While many people visit on an island-hopping cruise, for those on a tighter budget, it’s possible to stay in a hotel on the larger, inhabited islands like San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Floreana, or Isabela and make day trips to popular uninhabited islands nearby, with the top spots North Seymour, Santa Fe, Bartolome, and Plaza Island. Please see our full Guide to the Galapagos for more details.
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