In our opinion, Ecuador is the most underrated country to visit in South America. The incredible variety of things to see and do in the small country is mind-blowing and certainly makes it one of our favourite places to visit in all of Latin America.
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Ecuador is bordered by Colombia to the north and Peru to the east and south. The beautiful Pacific Ocean hugs the west side of the country.
Ecuador boasts stunning landscapes that change dramatically as you travel from the beaches along the Pacific Coast to the peaks of the Andes and into the dense Amazon jungle. The capital, Quito, is a vibrant gem of colonial architecture with churches and colourful streets adorning the historic city center.
The beauty of Ecuador is that no matter what kind of traveler you are, there is something to do in Ecuador for everyone. Adventurers love the mountain biking, hiking and climbing opportunities in the Andes, beachgoers will be pleasantly surprised by the coast, wild lovers will be in awe of the incredible diversity of the Galapagos Islands, while history and art lovers will revel in the incredible beauty of Quito’s historical heart.
If you’re wondering where to go in Ecuador, follow our tips and suggestions to plan an epic trip to this incredible country in South America.
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Best Time to Visit Ecuador
Ecuador is a great all-year-round destination, so narrowing down the best time to visit Ecuador can be a challenge. The climate varies across the different landscapes and regions, so it really depends on what you plan on doing and seeing during your trip to Ecuador.
In general, however, if you have your heart set on visiting the Galapago Islands and the Pacific coast, the best time to travel to Ecuador is from December to March. This is the prime season for diving, surfing and relaxing on the beach.
February to June are the wettest months in Ecuador. The rain and the subsequent landslides may make it difficult to travel to some parts of Ecuador.
The high season in Ecuador is from June until September, which is the main dry season for most of the country. This is when temperatures are at their warmest, so it’s a nice time to visit Quito and for trekking through the Andres.
The shoulder season in Ecuador is from October to December is a great alternative time to visit the country. This time is particularly popular with budget travelers and those looking to escape the crowds. It’s an especially good time of year for the Amazon, and even the Galapagos, before the crowds arrive.
How to Get to Ecuador
Ecuador can be easily reached by air or overland from neighbouring countries. The two main airport hubs in Ecuador are Quito (Mariscal Sucre International Airport – UIO) and Guayaquil (Guayaquil International Airport – GYE), with American Airlines, Delta, LATAM, Avianca and United operating frequent flights to both destinations
If you’re backpacking through South America, then it’s quite easy to reach Ecuador from Peru and Colombia by bus. From Peru, there are border crossings at Macara, Huayquillas and La Balsa, while with Colombia the main border crossing is at Tulcan.
How to Get Around Ecuador
There is an extensive bus network around Ecuador. It offers the best way to travel around Ecuador on a budget. Long-distance buses are efficient and low-cost and make it easy to get from one place to another.
Renting a car in Ecuador is possible, but is not recommended for those with little experience driving in Latin America. Mid-range travelers should hire a private driver/guide or join a guided tour instead. You can expect to pay anywhere between $50-100/day for a guide/driver combo.
During our visit to Ecuador, we spent a week on a tour with Activexpedition, a local tour operator that specializes in adventurous trips around the country. We had a great time and found that a private tour with a dedicated local guide is both an affordable and enjoyable way to experience Ecuador.
Best Things to Do in Ecuador
There is no shortage of things to do in Ecuador for every type of traveler. From cities to mountains, rainforests and beaches, the country is filled with destinations worth visiting. Here are the ones you can’t miss!
Spend a Few Days in Quito
Ecuador’s capital, Quito, is one of the most underrated cities in Latin America. It is surprisingly beautiful with stunning old architecture and a vibrant atmosphere showcasing the rich culture of Ecuador.
The city was founded in the 16th century and has one of the best-preserved historic Old Town centers in the Americas. It was the first city in the world to officially be recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site with its plazas, cathedrals, art galleries and old cobblestone streets. Spending a few days in the capital is a must-do in Ecuador.
Best things to do in Quito
- Wander around Quito’s historic center, known as Centro Historico, and gawk at the colonial architecture of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Don’t miss San Francisco Church in the Plaza San Francisco, Basilica del Voto Nacional, and Virgin of the Panecillo, a hill top statue of the winged Virgin Mary that overlooks the city.
- Hop aboard the TelefériQo Cable Car, which runs to the top of Cruz Loma. It presents an impressive panoramic view of the city and surrounding mountains. From there you can also hike to Mirador del Ruco Pichincha.
- Just outside of the city is Ciudad Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World monument) at the Equator, which is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city.
- Try some fantastic local food. You won’t find fusion food quite like it anywhere else in the country.
Where to Stay in Quito
Casa Gangotena – a beautiful historic boutique hotel in the heart of Quito’s Old Town in Plaza San Francisco. The hotel offers rooms and suites with spacious layouts and art-deco furnishing, paying tribute to the original structure of this historic mansion. The rooftop terrace offers a beautiful view of the old town and the on-site restaurant is one of the best in the city, offering a creative take on signature Ecuadorian cuisine.
Shop at the Biggest Market in Otavalo
The Otavalo market is one of the most famous in all of South America. It is considered to be the largest market on the continent. It is by far the best place in Ecuador to pick up local handicrafts, souvenirs and get an insight into the local Indigenous people and their culture.
The expansive market is in the small town of Otavalo, about a three-hours north of Quito. The market is on every day of the week but is most lively on Saturday mornings when it spills out from the Plaza de Ponchos into the surrounding streets.
You can find all the iconic souvenirs here, including Panama hats and alpaca wool jumpers from the craft shops and vendors.
Visit Laguna Cuicocha
The Laguna Cuicocha Crater Lake is a great addition to a trip to Otavalo. It’s a must-visit for beautiful scenery and is particularly popular with avid hikers.
The 3km-wide crater was formed around 3100 years ago and is quite a unique place to visit in Ecuador. The word ‘cuicocha’ means “guinea pig” in the indigenous Kichwa language. It refers to the shape of the two islands in the middle of the lake. The nearest village to Laguna Cuicocha is Cotacachi, just 30 minutes away from Otavalo.
Fit hikers will enjoy a loop hike around the crater rim. The 14km trek should take around 4-5 hours, with the highest point being around 3512m above sea level (11, 522 ft). You can also take a boat trip to get closer to the islands, but it’s prohibited from actually setting foot on them.
Hike to Cotopaxi Volcano
Cotopaxi Volcano is one of the most famous volcanoes in all of South America. At 5897m (12, 500 ft), the peak is the second highest in Ecuador. The volcano is part of the Cotopaxi National Park, located just two hours from Quito. It’s home to a variety of wildlife including wild horses, llamas, foxes, and the Andean condor.
The hike to the top of Cotopaxi Volcano is definitely not a walk in the park. Despite the big challenge, it’s still one of the top things to do in Ecuador.
The hike requires some glacier hiking experience as well as acclimatization. Most complete the hike in 2 days. On the first day, hikers ascend to Refugio Jose Rivas, which sits at 4864m. They rest for the evening and at around midnight commence the 6-10 hour ascend to the summit. The goal is to reach the summit by sunrise. It’s best to tackle the hike with an experienced guide, as altitude sickness and a glacier path make this a challenging undertaking.
Those that don’t want to submit the volcano can still visit the area to enjoy the views or do a smaller hike. If you’re not into hiking, you can also explore the park on two wheels. Downhill mountain bike adventure is a popular adventure activity on Cotopaxi Volcano.
Climb Volcano Antisana
If you’re looking for something more off the beaten track than Cotopaxi National Park, then a hike up to Volcano Antisana might be just for you. It’s arguably one of the best-kept secrets for outdoor enthusiasts in Ecuador. Volcano Antisada area has lots of wildlife and offers stunning views of the Andes mountains.
Volcano Antisana is the fourth tallest volcano in Ecuador, standing at an impressive 5,753m (18,870 ft). It’s considered to be one of the most visually appealing mountains to climb in Ecuador, with an incredible peak that is often shrouded in clouds.
The climb to the summit is not for the faint-hearted and is considered one of the most technical climbs in the country. It requires glacier experience, acclimatization, and good fitness. The climb is best done with an experienced local guide. For those interested in mountaineering, it’s a great peak to gain some more experience on and is one of the more unique Ecuador sights.
Soak in the Hot Springs at Papallacta
The town of Papallacta is located at the base of Antisana volcano, just 65kms from Quito. The area is famous for geothermal hot springs in the Andes Mountains.
The Papallacta Hot Springs is one of the most enticing of Ecuador attractions. The Hotel Termas de Papallacta consists of eight pools of varying sizes, all heated by natural geothermal energy. Entrance to the hot springs with access to the spa facilities is $23. Spa treatments are available for an additional price.
Papallacta Hot Springs is one of the most relaxing attractions of Ecuador. The mineral-rich hot springs offer an ideal place to unwind after a trek or an adventure in the Amazon rainforest. If you’re considering what to do in Ecuador for a relaxing getaway, a visit to Papallacta is a must!
Go Birdwatching in Mindo
Hidden in the cloud forest, the town of Mindo is an absolute haven for nature lovers and bird watchers. The forest around Mindo is known around the Americas as one of the premium bird-watching destinations in South America. Mindo is located just 2 hours away from Quito and offers a great day trip from the capital.
Most people travel to Mindo in the hope of spotting the Andean cock-of-the-rock bird. The unique bird species is the biggest draw of the region, but it’s not easy to spot. The best way to go birdwatching in Mindo is to join one of the local guides on a specialized bird-watching tour.
Visit the Mashpi Cloud Forest
Another birdwatching destination in Ecuador is the Mashpi Cloud Forest, a place to get a glimpse of the diverse bird species found in the country. The reserve is home to an impressive 400 species of birds, including around 36 endemic species, making it one of the most famous places in Ecuador for birdwatchers.
Aside from birdwatching, the Mashpi Reserve has dozens of hiking trails, a dragonfly cable car that takes you high above the canopy, as well as a hummingbird and butterfly centre.
Where to Stay in Mashpi
Mashpi Lodge sits at 950 meters (3,117 feet) above sea level in the heart of a 2,500-acre Mashpi Reserve and offers a truly unique accommodation experience. This all-inclusive luxury lodge has won numerous awards for its research and conservation work and collaboration with the local community. The eco rainforest lodge offers on-site tours and experiences within the Mashpi Cloud Forest with world-class service, dining and stunning rooms.
Hike in Quilotoa Crater Lake
Quilotoa Lake is another popular tourist attraction in Ecuador. The crater lake spans 3km wide and is estimated to have been created around 600 years ago. Quilotoa Lake is located 3 hours south of Quito. It can be visited on a day trip from Ecuador’s capital or as a part of a longer Quilotoa Loop Trek.
Visitors can hike to the bottom of the lake and rent a kayak to explore the lake from up close. Keep in mind that the trail to the water is steep and the walk back up can be a challenge, especially if you are not used to hiking at elevation. For those less fit, horse rides are available and cost $10 per person.
The full Quilotoa Loop is one of the highlights of Ecuador for active travelers. The trek takes 3-4 days, starting and finishing at Laguna Quilotoa. The trail passes through small Andean villages with homestays for accommodation along the way. The trek is comparable to the Inca Trail in Peru and has fast become one of the must-do things in Ecuador.
Follow the Waterfall Route in Banos
Another top tourist spots in Ecuador is Banos, an adventure capital and a top destination to visit for many visitors. Located up in the Andes on the side of an active volcano called Tungurahua, Banos offers plenty of activities. You can go biking, whitewater rafting, bungee jumping and hiking in town.
While there are plenty of things to do in and around Banos, the Waterfall Route is by far the most popular. Known as the Ruta de las Cascadas, the 61km road takes in some of the most beautiful waterfalls in the surrounding area for some quintessential Ecuador scenery. You can join a tour, or hire a bike or ATV buggy to get around to the waterfalls.
The most popular ones include:
- Agoyan Waterfall: The long plunging falls of Agoyan can be seen from across the valley. The iconic nature of these falls is the old tarabitas or cable cars which take you closer to the waterfalls in an old metal cage. You can choose whether you go over the top or get down below, but either way, it’s a thrilling ride.
- Cascada Manto de la Novia: The Bride’s Veil is one of the more impressive waterfall stops. You can take another tarabita across the gorge or a long hike down to the bottom.
- El Pailon del Diablo: Del Diablo waterfall is the jewel of the best waterfalls in Ecuador and the main attraction of the route. There are two different entrances (with separate entrance fees) to these huge falls on either side of the river. One takes you behind the falls and the other provides a view from the front. There is a great little restaurant overlooking the falls at the entrance on the eastern side of the river too.
Swing at the End of the World at Casa de Arbol in Banos
Another famous attraction in Banos is the swing at the End of the World. Known as the original Ecuador swing, this is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Ecuador. There are now, of course, dozens of other swings in Banos and many more all over the country taking advantage of the hype and famous Instagram photos.
The original swing at Banos overlooks the Tungurahua volcano above the town and offers a thrilling ride! While most visitors see the swing as nothing more than a photo opp, it is definitely one of the most fun things to do in Ecuador.
Where to Stay in Banos
While there is plenty of accommodation in Banos town, we particularly enjoyed our stay at Hacienda Leito, located about 30 mins outside of town. The family-run resort has a lot of history and offers a beautiful spot to relax after a long day of activities in Banos. The rooms and common areas are spacious with traditional decor. The on-site restaurant features great home-cooked Ecuadorian cuisine.
Go Mountain Biking at Parque Nacional Llanganates
Mountain biking is certainly one of the top ten things to do in Ecuador for thrill-seekers. And biking in Parque Nacional Llanganates is especially world-class. The expansive national park is located outside of Ambato, home to an extensive network of hiking and biking trails.
While there are plenty of chances to go mountain biking in Ecuador, it’s often Llanganates National Park that gets crowned as one of the best in any Ecuador travel guide. As one of the most popular activities in Ecuador, a trip to the national park for some biking is a must if you have the time.
Search for Adventures and Wildlife in the Amazon
Ecuador’s slice of the expansive Amazon jungle is surprisingly accessible from the towns of Tena or Coca. Both provide access to Rio Napo, which connects this part of Ecuador to the deep Amazon and offers prime opportunities to see one of the most biodiverse place in the world.
While the Amazon is one of the main Ecuador destinations, getting the full Amazon jungle experience near Tena can be challenging. Large settlements and illegal gold mining keep wildlife away from this part of the river.
Rio Napo and the nearby area does offer some great adventure activities. There is white water rafting, hiking, canyoning, rappelling and more!
Where to Stay in the Amazon
We had a really great experience staying with a local Kichwa family at a homestay type of accommodation. The stay was arranged for us as a part of our Active Ecuador tour with Activexpedition and included all meals, accommodation, and some activities. While there, we did a really fun canyoning adventure through the jungle and even got a hands-on experience making chocolate.
We also spent a night at Huasquila Amazon Lodge, located 30 mins north of Tena. This eco-lodge is perfectly located in the heart of the lush jungle and offers comfortable bungalows with terraces plus cabin-style huts built in traditional Kichwa style. They offer lots of activities and tours at the lodge, making it a great hub when visiting the Amazon.
Visit the Galapagos Islands
A visit to Ecuador would not be complete without a trip to the Galápagos Islands. The incredible islands off mainland Ecuador are one of the most scenic locations you’ll ever visit and are especially known for their abundant wildlife.
There are a number of ways to explore the Galapagos responsibly ranging from land based island hopping tours to luxury Galapagos cruises.
Cruise in the Galapagos
Cruising in the Galapagos allows you to visit the inhabited islands and a chance to experience more remote parts of the region. Be careful when selecting a cruise, paying a lot of attention to the size of the boat, their commitment to environmental protection, conservation and to their involvement with the local communities. We recommend cruising with Oniric Cruises, a responsible cruise operator with a fleet of 4 boats, offering a number of itineraries ranging from 4-8 days.
Land-Based Galapagos Trip
A land-based trip is a more budget-friendly option suitable for backpackers and mid-range travelers. They require a bit more planning but offer an opportunity to stay on the main islands and then join day trips to see wildlife and take part in hiking, snorkeling and other activities. There are ferries between the islands, a number of hotels to choose from and good restaurants to experience during your stay on each island. If you are looking for an all-inclusive Galapagos land-based tour, we highly recommend a trip with Galakiwi, a fantastic operator offering adventure + wildlife tours in the Galapagos.
There are many reasons to explore the Galapagos Islands, but the unique wildlife is what attracts most people to this remote region. Some of the animals you can enjoy include blue-footed boobies, sea lions, land iguanas and giant tortoises. One of the best places to go in Ecuador for animal lovers is the Charles Darwin Research Station in the fishing village of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island.
Visit the Beaches
Ecuador’s Pacific Coast has some surprises for those who have the time to explore it. There are some great coastal towns with a laid-back vibe and plenty of well-known Ecuador activities.
Of the towns on the coast, Montañita has become a backpacker favourite. It’s long been considered a great surf spot, attracting surfers from around the world. However, in recent years it’s also turned into a party town, with an infectious nightlife that entices many travelers to stay for much longer than planned.
If you’re looking for alternative beach destinations in Ecuador, Canoa, Salinas and Manta are all really nice towns if you want to spend a few days on the beach.
Go Whale Watching in Salinas
The Pacific Ocean is home to migrating Humpback Whales that pass by Ecuador’s coast every year. The town of Salinas is a particularly famous spot for whale watching and offers one of the best things to do in Ecuador in July through to October.
You can join a tour or try your luck at spotting whales from land. There are a number of known viewpoints around town from where you can spot them. Whale watching it’s not a common activity for sightseeing in Ecuador. But, it’s definitely an underrated wildlife encounter in the country that’s worth adding to your list.
How Long Do you Need to Spend in Ecuador
It’s best to allow at least 2 weeks to explore Ecuador. If you want to see all the main sights and attractions, you’ll need to plan for 3-4 weeks.
A typical 2-week itinerary includes a few days in Quito, a few days in the Amazon and a trip to the Galapagos. If you want to get around to all the best places to visit in Ecuador, a month would be perfect!
Want to follow in our footsteps? Here is our Ecuador itinerary:
If you’re visiting Ecuador and want to follow our trip, we suggest the following itinerary:
- 5 days in Quito, stay at Casa Gangotena and explore the city and surrounding Ecuador tourist sites
- 7-day Active Ecuador Tour with Activexpedition, which gives you a taste of the top outdoor adventures in Ecuador
- 2 days in Mashpi Lodge for some wellness time and birdwatching
- 7 night Galapagos Cruise with Oniric Cruises to delve into one of the most unique places on earth