Canoe - The most common boat is the motorized canoe, which acts as a water taxi or bus along the major rivers of the Oriente (especially on the Río Napo) and parts of the northern coast. Most people experience this novel form of transport during a tour in the Amazon, as motorized canoes are often the only way to a rainforest lodge. These canoes often carry as many as 36 passengers. Generally, they’re long in shape and short on comfort. Seating is normally on hard, low wooden benches which accommodate two people each. Most river lodges provide bench cushions on their boats. If you're taking public-transport canoes: bring seat padding. A folded sweater or towel will make a world of difference on the trip.
In the Galápagos, you have a choice of traveling in anything from a small sailboat to a cruise ship replete with air-conditioned cabins and private bathrooms. Passenger ferries run infrequently between the islands, offering the cheapest means of interisland transport. Only folks traveling around the islands independently (ie, not on a cruise) need consider these. In addition to the dugout canoes of the Oriente, one live-aboard riverboat, the Anakonda, makes relatively luxurious passages down Río Napo.
Buses are the primary means of transport for most Ecuadorians, guaranteed to go just about anywhere. They can be exciting, cramped, comfy, smelly, fun, scary, sociable and grueling, depending on your state of mind, where you’re going and who’s driving. There have also been some tragic bus accidents in recent years. Most buses lack seat belts, but if you're on one that has them, do use them.
Most major cities have a main terminal terrestre (bus terminal), although some towns have a host of private terminals – and you’ll have to go to the right one to catch the bus going where you need to go. Most stations are within walking distance or a short cab ride of the town’s center. Smaller towns are occasionally served by passing buses, in which case you have to walk from the highway into town, usually only a short walk since only the smallest towns lack terminals.
Bigger luggage is stored in the compartment below and is generally safe. Theft is more of a concern for objects taken inside the bus. To avoid the risk of becoming a victim, keep whatever you bring onto the bus on your lap (not the floor or overhead). On average, bus journeys cost a bit more than $1 per hour of travel. Remember to always have your passport handy when you’re going anywhere by bus, as they are sometimes stopped for checks. This is especially true in the Oriente.
WHERE TO STAY IN ECUADOR
Featuring a swimming pool and a fitness centre, Wyndham Hotel Guayaquil offers rooms with free WiFi and plasma TVs in Guayaquil. A restaurant is featured. Guayaquil Municipal Museum is 8 km away. Fully carpeted, rooms at Wyndham Hotel Guayaquil have large windows. All of them have heating, air conditioning and private bathrooms. Some rooms offer panoramic river views. Breakfast is served daily for an extra fee. International dishes can be ordered at the property’s restaurant, whereas drinks and snacks can be enjoyed at the bar. Wyndham Hotel Guayaquil is 180 km from Montañita Beach area. Jose Joaquin de Olmedo International Airport is 4,8 km away.
Only a 2-minute walk from Montañita downtown, Hotel Kundalini offers large green areas and is located right in front of the sea shore. A daily a la carte breakfast is included, and free WiFi access is available. Rooms at Kundalini Hotel are decorated with local materials and include free WiFi and a private lounge gallery. They are air-conditioned and have a private bathroom with hot water. Guests can relax and exchange experiences with other guests at the outdoor social area. Surf lessons can be taken and surf equipment can be hired. The daily breakfast consists of fruits, oats, tea and coffee, as well as the options of scrambled eggs, french toast, and fruit salad with yogurt and granola. Additionally, guests are offered yoga classes per request. Free water, tea and coffee are offered at the 24-hour front-desk. The hotel is a 2-minute walk from the bus station. Guayaquil Airport is 180 km away. Shuttle services can be arranged for an extra fee.
- Royal Decameron Mompiche - All Inclusive
Royal Decameron Mompiche boasts an outdoor pool and rooms with balconies. It is only 100 m from the white-sand beach and offers free boat rides to the beach club Portete Island, 3 minutes away. At Hotel Royal Decameron Mompiche, every night the animation team offers shows for children and adults. Free gym facilities and a tennis court are available. There are 4 restaurants including 3 à la carte and a buffet restaurant. Guests can enjoy a tropical drink by the beach or at any of the 6 on-site bars. El Fortin Disco offers after-dinner entertainment. Spacious, air-conditioned rooms feature flat-screen cable TV and simple, contemporary décor. All rooms have private bathrooms with toiletries. Coronel Carlos Concha Torres airport is 114 km away. Guests who are driving can enjoy free on-site private parking.
Offering a terrace and spa centre, Wyndham Quito Airport is located in Quito, 37 km from Atahualpa Olympic Stadium. The hotel has a hot tub and sauna, and guests can enjoy a meal at the restaurant. An airport shuttle is available upon request. Every room at this hotel is air conditioned and is fitted with a flat-screen TV. Some units include a seating area where you can relax. You will find a coffee machine in the room. The rooms are fitted with a private bathroom equipped with a shower. You will find a 24-hour front desk at the property. Quicentro Shopping Mall is 37 km from Wyndham Quito Airport, while La Carolina Park is 36 km from the property. Mariscal Sucre Airport is 1 km away.
- Hillary Nature Resort & Spa All Inclusive
Featuring an outdoor swimming pool, a private Zoo and a fitness centre, this All-inclusive resort offers free Wi-Fi access and a spa in Arenillas. A garden and a restaurant are featured on site. Machala city centre is 35 km away. Providing a tranquil environment, the suites and bungalows in Hillary Nature Resort & Spa feature private bathrooms, cable TVs, and minibars. The superior bungalow offers a spa bath and a balcony with panoramic scenic views. Hillary Nature Resort & Spa is 35 km from Bolivar port and 30 km from Puyango Petrified Forest. Santa Rosa airport is 15 km from the property and free private parking is possible on site.
Only 2 km from Jose Joaquin Olmedo International Airport, Sonesta Hotel Guayaquil offers plush rooms with free WiFi and LED TVs. There is a spa, a swimming pool and a fitness centre. The Malecon is 6 km away. Fully carpeted, rooms at Sonesta Hotel are bright and airy. They feature wooden work desks and minibars. Some of them have dining areas. A buffet breakfast including 8 different varieties of bread, juices, fruits, eggs and waffles is served daily. Sabores y Vinos restaurant offers local and international dishes. Spa facilities include a sauna. Guest can make use of the fitness centre, or unwind on the terrace. The 24-hour front desk can secure airport shuttles. Sonesta Hotel Guayaquil is 2 km from Simon Bolivar Convention centre.
- Wyndham Manta Sail Plaza Hotel and Convention Center
Featuring free WiFi and a spa centre, Hotel Sail Plaza Manta offers accommodation in Manta, 2.4 km from Murcielago Beach. Guests can enjoy a meal at the restaurant or a drink at the bar. Free private parking is available on site. There is free shuttle service, a 24-hour front desk and hairdresser's at the property. You can engage in various activities, such as snorkeling and windsurfing. Manta Harbour is 3.5 km from Hotel Sail Plaza Manta, while Tarqui Beach is 5 km away. The nearest airport is Eloy Alfaro International Airport, 8 km from the property.
- Royal Decameron Punta Centinela - All Inclusive
Boasting oceanfront location along a beach in Santa Elena, the resort offers 2 swimming pools, an on-site tennis court, 2 á la carte restaurant, 1 buffet restaurant and 5 bars. WiFi is provided for a fee. Royal Decameron Punta Centinela Beach Resort & Spa Convention Center has gym facilities and beach side massage sessions can be booked for an extra fee. Bicycle rental, fishing and safety-deposit boxes can be arranged at an extra cost. The property offers an on-site nightclub open from Wednesday to Sundays from 22:30 to 02:00, a bar called 'Ceviches y Cervezas' open Mondays and Tuesdays, a movie theater and a karaoke room. Guests staying at Decameron can enjoy Mediterranean specialties at El Coral Restaurant and buffet meals at Costa Brava on an all inclusive plan that also features breakfast, snack and drinks. The property's yacht club also offers an a la cárte restaurant, El Muelle, that specializes in Ecuadorian-Peruvian seafood Ulpiano Páez Airport is a 20-minute drive and international Airport José Joaquín de Olmedo, in Guayaquil City is 170 km away.
Featuring a spa, a restaurant, and a hot spring bath, Termas de Papallacta offers rooms and bungalows with free WiFi in Papallacta. Trekking and horseback riding activities are organized. The commercial district is 40 minutes away by car. Decorated with wooden walls and gabled roofs, rooms at Termas de Papallacta are fitted with wooden furnishing. Some of the bungalows feature seating areas with fireplaces. International dishes can be ordered at the restaurant. Guests can relax in the thermal and swimming pools. Several beauty treatments are available at the spa, including aromatherapy, therapeutic massages, body treatments with mud and clay or chocolate, individual hydro massages, and Turkish baths at the Thermal Cave. Trekking activities with local guides are organized to explore the unique species of the area. Quito is 1.5 hours away by car. Termas de Papallacta is a 1-hour drive from Tumbaco and 50 km from the airport.
Offering free WiFi and a restaurant, Mindo Lago Hotel Destino is situated in Mindo, 80 km from Quito. Pedro Vicente Maldonado is 39 km away. Free private parking is available on site. There is a private bathroom with a shower and free toiletries in every unit. Towels are provided. Mindo Lago Hotel Destino also includes a year-round outdoor pool. San Miguel de los Bancos is 14 km from Mindo Lago Hotel Destino. The nearest airport is Mariscal Sucre Airport, 47 km from Mindo Lago Hotel Destino.
Set in Guayaquil, 3.5 km from Saint Francis Church, Radisson Hotel Guayaquil offers accommodation with a restaurant, free private parking, a seasonal outdoor swimming pool and a fitness centre. 5 km from Malecon 2000 and 3.3 km from City Cemetery, the property provides a bar and a shared lounge. The accommodation features a 24-hour front desk, airport transfers, room service and free WiFi throughout the property. The units in the hotel are equipped with a flat-screen TV. Guests at Radisson Hotel Guayaquil can enjoy a continental or a buffet breakfast. The accommodation offers a sun terrace. Radisson Hotel Guayaquil features amenities such as an on-site business centre and hot tub. Artisan Market Guayaquil is 3.4 km from the hotel, while Central Market is 3.5 km away. The nearest airport is José Joaquín de Olmedo International Airport, 6 km from Radisson Hotel Guayaquil.
- Hilton Colon Guayaquil Hotel
Offering complete, secure luxury accommodation, 1 km from San Marino Shopping Center and the down town district, the Hilton Colon offers spacious rooms with LCD TVs, a pool, 5 restaurants and 2 bars. Hilton Colon Guayaquil provides air-conditioning rooms with electronic locks, soundproof windows, hairdryer, and a work area. Some also offer a terrace or solarium. You will also find a tropical garden area and a wellness centre and spa. When dining, guests can chose from different cuisine types such as the Kioto Sushi Bar or Vereda Tropical Restaurant. Enjoy relaxed drinks by the pool at the Coco Bar or along music at the Atrium Bar. The Hilton is just 5 minutes' drive from José Joaquín de Olmedo International Airport, 250 m from San Gabriel de la Dolorosa Church and 1 and a half hour from Galapagos Islands by plane.
PLACES TO VISIT & THINGS TO DO IN ECUADOR
More than making up for its small size with an array of indigenous cultures, colonial architecture, scenic landscapes, and dense rainforests, Ecuador is one of the most fascinating nations in South America. Bordered by Colombia, Peru, and the Pacific Ocean—and no larger than most US states—this beautiful country attracts climbers, trekkers, adventurers, and nature lovers to its lush, ecologically important forests; wildlife watchers to its famous Galápagos Islands; and sun seekers to its pristine tropical beaches.
Once a part of both the Inca and later, the Spanish Empires, Ecuador still displays many influences from both groups, most notably in the rich culture of its people and the splendid colonial architecture of the capital city of Quito, much of which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Since their "discovery" in the 16th century, the Galápagos Islands have intrigued and inspired visitors from around the globe. Named for the giant tortoises on the islands, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to a unique ecosystem that largely evolved without outside influences (mainland Ecuador lies some 1,000 kilometers to the east) and offers an exceptional opportunity for wildlife viewing. The Galápagos Islands remain one of the most active volcanic regions in the world, and the formation of the islands is still in progress. Most of the 13 large islands, six smaller islands, and 42 islets that make up the Galápagos were declared part of the Galápagos National Park in the 1950s, and visiting this fragile ecosystem can only be undertaken as part of a guided tour to designated visitor sites (there are, however, one or two areas visitors can go without a guide, including some areas popular with scuba divers). The main attraction here are its many bird species, of which 28 are unique to the islands, including the Galápagos penguin, flightless cormorant, and waved albatross, and the 13 species of Darwin's famous finches.
Hot Tip: Be sure to book a behind-the-scenes visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island (tours of this important research facility can be made in advance of your arrival).
- Seek Wildlife Encounters in the Galapagos Islands
Lying off Ecuador’s coast, the Galapagos Islands are like nowhere else on earth. This island chain has been untouched for centuries. Visitors will now find it teeming with unique wildlife and endemic species, not found anywhere else. Nature abounds both above and below the ocean’s surface throughout the Galapagos! A visit to Galapagos National Park can be like wandering through a living museum. Visitors regularly encounter sea lions and iguanas by simply walking around the port or beaches. But that’s not all. Some common Galapagos wildlife encounters include:
Gazing upon wild flamingos,
Swimming with sea lions,
Watching wild penguins frolicking in a bay,
Stumbling across both marine iguanas & land iguanas,
Snorkeling with sharks, including hammerheads,
Gliding past dozens of sea turtles,
Visiting wild Galapagos tortoises,
Diving with giant manta rays,
Coming face-to-face with blue-footed boobies,
Spotting Galapagos hawks, finches, frigate birds, among other endemic bird species,
and possibly even having a rare encounter with a whale shark!
They’re all here in the Galapagos . The Galapagos Islands are undoubtedly one of the best places to visit in Ecuador for nature. And the famed islands are now more accessible for travelers than ever. Even those who are traveling on a budget can make a Galapagos trip a reality.
- Quito: Ecuador's Historic Andean Capital
High in the Andes, Quito, the capital of Ecuador, is filled with colonial architecture and is the largest historic center in South America. Preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its many old churches, beautiful public squares, and world-class museums, this city of 1.6 million people has long been a favorite with artisans and is a great place to shop for local art and crafts, from ceramics and wood carvings to colorful clothing. The most famous attraction in Quito's historic center is the San Francisco Church on the Plaza San Francisco. Dating back to the first half of the 1500s, the church's white-washed twin towers flank each side of the entrance to this massive complex. It's notable for its splendid Baroque interior and the Convent Museum of San Francisco with its religious paintings, sculptures, carvings, porcelain, textiles, and handcrafted furniture. Other beautiful churches to visit include La Compania de Jesus Church, constructed in the early 17th century and listed by UNESCO as one of the top 100 most important buildings in the world, and Quito's cathedral, Basílica del Voto Nacional, constructed in the 1560s. One of the top things to do here is to explore Plaza Grande, a beautiful square surrounded by important points of interest, including the cathedral, the Presidential Palace, the Archbishop's Palace, and the Municipal Palace, as well as Calle La Ronda, a buzzing street lined with restaurants, cafés, art galleries, and other entertainment.
The beautiful city of Cuenca—officially known as Santa Ana de los cuatro ríos de Cuenca and home to some 330,000 souls—is located in southern Ecuador and is a delightful place to explore on foot. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city brims with splendid colonial influences and architectural treasures spanning 400 years and encompassing both Spanish and Indian elements.
The historic city center is also where many of Cuenca's key attractions lie, one of the most important being the Old Cathedral of Cuenca (Iglesia del Sagrario). Built in 1567 from stones taken from nearby Inca buildings, highlights include its old organ from 1739, its tower clock from 1751, and the Museum for Religious Art. Also worth a visit is the massive New Cathedral of Cuenca, built in the 1960s and hard to miss for its three beautiful blue-tiled domes. The Church of San Sebastian with its mix of Gothic and Neoclassical elements is also worth seeing. As you wander Cuenca's pleasant narrow streets, be sure to spend some time exploring the many squares and parks, including Calderon Park in the heart of the old town; Plaza San Blas Square, dominated by the Church of San Blas; and Plaza de San Francisco with its merchants selling textiles and other goods.
- Cotopaxi and Cajas National Parks
Two of Ecuador's most popular national parks, Cotopaxi and Cajas, are within easy driving distances from the cities of Cuenca and Quito and make wonderful day trips. Of the two, Cotopaxi National Park (Parque Nacional Cotopaxi), just 50 kilometers south of Quito, is perhaps the best known thanks to the massive (and still active, with its last eruption as recent as 2015) Cotopaxi volcano dominating the area, along with the smaller Rumiñawi and Sincholagua volcanoes. About 30 kilometers from Cuenca in Ecuador's stunning highlands, Cajas National Park (Parque Nacional Cajas) offers a different experience due to its numerous hills and valleys, making it a perfect place to hike and bike. It's also a delight for watersports enthusiasts, particularly kayakers and canoeists, thanks to its more than 270 lagoons and glacier-fed lakes. Finally, Podocarpus National Park, often referred to as the "Botanical Garden of America," offers a diverse range of flora and fauna. In the southeast part of the country, its humid mountain forests are home to more than 4,000 species of plants and trees (some as tall as 40 meters), including the famous cinchona, Ecuador's national tree.
- The Boardwalk of Guayaquil
Ecuador's largest city in terms of population (2.3 million), the Pacific port of Guayaquil is well known as the gateway to the Galápagos Islands. In addition to its many historic sites, Guayaquil boasts great shopping and entertainment venues in its many picturesque squares and plazas, as well as along its splendid waterfront. The highlight for those who enjoy exploring on foot is the magnificent Malecón 2000, a two-and-a-half-kilometer-long boardwalk adjacent to the Guayas River. Undoubtedly one of the world's most memorable promenades, this remarkable urban renewal project winds along the river's west shore past many of the city's best attractions, including important historical sites, gardens, museums, and entertainment. For a real treat, take a tour boat on an evening trip up the river, when the city is lit up to beautiful effect. Other highlights include the splendid Guayaquil Metropolitan Cathedral and Museo Antropológico y de Arte Contemporaneo with its fascinating displays and collections focusing on the country's rich culture and history.
- Nariz del Diablo: The Devil's Nose
A visit to the stunningly beautiful Nariz del Diablo ("The Devil's Nose") should be on everyone's bucket list. Whether you're a train enthusiast or not, this spectacular part of the Andes mountains near the town of Alausí is best seen aboard one of the country's superbly restored railways, part of a network that stretches across the country to some of its most scenic locations. The 12-kilometer return trip to Nariz del Diablo is undoubtedly one of the most popular and includes a fantastic sightseeing trip aboard a train that zigzags through a number of switchbacks as it climbs the near vertical sides of the mountain to the viewing station at its top. You'll have the chance to experience the rich culture of the Andes, including a visit to the Puñuna Condor Museum with its exhibits and displays relating to the area's indigenous people.
Thanks to its lovely surroundings and numerous hot springs, the small town of Baños de Agua Santa is a popular tourist destination within central Ecuador. Located at the western edge of the Amazon basin, Baños is nestled among dense jungle-like forests and offers numerous recreational opportunities including hiking and mountain biking. But the big draw are its mineral-rich hot springs and many waterfalls, some of them accessible from the town via a series of fun trails incorporating rope bridges with incredible views over the falls and their deep pools. Adventure sports such as whitewater rafting and kayaking are also popular here. More sedate things to do include visiting landmarks such as the Virgen de Agua Santa church with its famous statue of Mary (it's claimed she appeared at one of the town's waterfalls) and shopping for local goods such as colorful carved balsa parrots while enjoying the town's famous "melcocha," a type of candy made from cane sugar.
In a pleasant valley surrounded by mountains lies the picturesque town of Otavalo. The town's big draw is its excellent market, one of the largest in South America, where locals and tourists alike come to buy colorful locally made rugs and blankets, sweaters, bags, and other wool products made by the indigenous Otavaleños people. Other notable items are the unique tagua nut jewelry, leather goods, indigenous costumes, as well as many interesting food items, in particular locally-produced spices. If visiting in June, be sure to check out the famous Inti Raymi (Festival of the Sun) music festival featuring numerous local musicians with their distinctive instruments and sounds.
- Exploring the Amazon's Upper Reaches in Tena
Another excellent place from which to experience some of the vast Amazon basin is the city of Tena, capital of the province of Napo. Famous as Ecuador's cinnamon capital, Tena was established by missionaries not long after the Spanish arrived in South America and is an increasingly popular destination for travelers due to its many opportunities for adventure. Highlights here are jungle excursions into the Amazon, along with fun river journeys, including whitewater rafting; canoeing; and kayaking down the Tena, Misahualli, and Napo Rivers, the latter of which flows directly into the Amazon. For those who enjoy their river action a little smoother, Tena also boasts a superb pedestrian bridge and tower high above the Tena River offering great views of the city.
- The Beaches of Salinas, Bahía, and Montañita
While best known for its ecotourism and adventure travel opportunities, Ecuador also boasts a number of beautiful beaches worth visiting, whether for a short break from sightseeing or as a base for a longer sun, sand, and sea vacation. One of the most popular areas due to its many beach resorts is the coastal city of Salinas, located a little west of Guayaquil and boasting a consistently warm climate year-round. Also popular is the Pacific coastal city of Bahía de Caráquez. Situated on a pretty peninsula jutting out into the ocean, Bahía attracts many tourists with its fine beaches, numerous hotels, and lively entertainment scene. Another popular area, particularly among younger travelers and surfers, is Montañita in the south coastal region of the country (for families, head a little further south to the quieter beaches of the fishing village of Ayangue).
- Climb a Volcano in Ecuador
There are dozens of volcanos throughout the country. And those who are fit for the challenge should definitely put summiting a volcano on their list of things to do in Ecuador. Some of Ecuador’s volcanos are fairly accessible for a day hike, while others require technical climbing skills. The following are some of Ecuador’s most notable volcanos to consider a trek up. Rising 6,263 meters (nearly 4 miles high), Volcán Chimborazo isn’t just the tallest mountain in Ecuador. This inactive stratovolcano is the furthest point on Earth’s surface from the center of Earth. When measuring the height from the earth’s center, rather than sea level, Chimborazo clocks in even higher than Everest.
This happens because there is something known as the equatorial bulge. The earth is actually a bit wider around its midsection, caused by Earth’s rotation. Because of this, Volcan Chimborazo to be the closest point on planet earth to outer space. Summiting Chimborazo is a challenging high-altitude ascent requiring technical ice-climbing gear. Adventurers will also need at least two days to complete the overnight summit. The town of Riobamba acts as the staging ground for this climb. It’s here that adventure operators are able to assist and guide climbers. For a less extreme challenge on Chimborazo, it’s also possible to take a short day hike towards the summit. Whether hiking independently or as part of a tour, visitors can ascend to a small pond at an elevation of 5,100 meters high (16,732 feet).
- Hiking Volcán Sierra Negra: Most Active Volcano in the Galapagos
Volcanos aren’t only limited to the Andes of Ecuador. The Sierra Negra Volcano on Isabela Island is the most active volcano in the island chain. And this volcano can make for a convenient day hike in the Galapagos! Well, that is, when this volcano is not erupting. Sierra Negra is quite active, having last erupted in the summer of 2018. Sierra Negra is actually one of the widest active volcanos on earth! The caldera stretches out 9.3 kilometers wide at one point, making it the largest of all Galapagos volcanos. It’s so wide that it’s virtually impossible to photograph the entire volcano. This 16 km (10-mile) hike up and around a portion of Sierra Negra’s rim is an awe-inspiring thing to do in Ecuador! Trekking across the black volcanic rock feels like walking on another planet. The otherworldly views that hikers are rewarded with from the top make the sweat-inducing trek totally worth it. Hiking Volcan Sierra Negra can be included as part of multi-day Galapagos tours. Yet those traveling the islands independently can find half-day hiking tours of Sierra Negra in the town of Puerto Villamil. It’s $35 per person, including a guide and transportation to the trailhead.
- Trek to the Glaciers of the Cotopaxi Volcano
This glacier-capped Volcán Cotopaxi is one of the tallest active volcanoes in the world! It’s also the 2nd highest point in Ecuador, with a summit is 5,897 meters high. That’s an elevation of about 3.6 miles in altitude! To reach the summit of Cotopaxi, it takes a grueling overnight ascent. Sometimes it’s even off-limits due to heightened volcanic activity. But a day trek to Cotopaxi’s base camp is a more accessible consideration. Hikers can reach an elevation of 4,864 meters, which is around the snowline and where the glaciers begin. Such Cotopaxi day trips can be organized from the town of Latacunga or Quito.
- Explore Ecuador’s UNESCO-listed Historic Centers: Quito & Cuenca
Ecuador has two historic centers recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites for their long-standing cultural value. Roaming around the ornate buildings of the centuries-old streets can make visitors feel like they’ve gone back to a different era. Quito is said to have the best-preserved, least altered historic center in all of Latin America. It’s this recognition that led Quito to become one of the first cities in the world to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, back in 1978. The historic center of Quito delivers not only cultural significance, but also lots of charm. Despite earthquakes and modernization, the baroque buildings in Quito’s Old Town remain largely intact. It’s enchanting to wander through bustling South American capital amongst the beautiful architecture that’s remained here for nearly a half-millennium! Grand plazas open up to historic churches while quaint cafes line the streets to museums that further detail the history of the city. Quito’s historic center is a fascinating place to wander around and deserves being firmly placed on any Ecuador itinerary.
- Float through the Amazon Jungle
Eastern Ecuador covers a wide swath of the Amazon Rainforest and holds many tributaries to the Amazon River. It takes some effort to reach this remote jungle environment. Yet those who do so are rewarded with awesome Amazonian experiences. Within the Ecuadorian Amazon, it’s possible to go fishing for piranhas, spot pink river dolphins, meet with a local shaman, and search for anacondas. In addition to common reptilian life throughout the jungle, visitors can also find monkeys, tapirs, or even an elusive jaguar. This is all set amongst the lush rainforest setting with its enormous tree canopies. The Ecuadorian Amazon is also home to remote native tribes, which makes for interesting visits and cultural exchange. It’s possible to explore Ecuador’s Amazon on your own. Yet the Amazon can be best approached as part of a tour and a lodge stay experience. Reserva de Cuyabeno is one of the best areas to see wildlife.
- Admire Ecuador’s Best Waterfalls
Given the many rivers flowing from the Andes, there are thousands of gorgeous waterfalls spilling their waters across Ecuador. In March 2020, it was reported that Ecuador’s highest waterfall, San Rafael, has seemingly vanished after a sinkhole swallowed part of its source waters. The once-notable waterfall in Ecuador is currently closed to tourism. Thankfully, there are still thousands more raging waterfalls to check out, scattered all throughout Ecuador.
1. Visit Palion del Diablo Waterfall: Among Ecuador’s Most Popular and Beautiful
Translated as the Devil’s Cauldron, Palion del Diablo is likely the most popular waterfall to visit in Ecuador and arguably the most scenic! The short trail to the waterfall includes lots of stairs and fun suspension bridges to traverse over. This adds to the adventure through a narrow canyon leading to the waterfall’s viewpoint. Yet soon enough, the 80-meter waterfall comes into view, along with the misty spray that regularly soaks visitors. This waterfall is easily accessed from Baños by bus, taxi, or cycling. And only a $2 entry fee to enter.
2. Visit Nambillo Waterfall Sanctuary
This waterfall sanctuary in the Mindo Cloud Forest holds one of the greatest concentration of waterfalls in Ecuador. There are at least fifteen different waterfalls found throughout the Nambillo Waterfall Sanctuary! The largest waterfall is the 50-meter (164 foot) Cascada Reina (Queen Waterfall). Continuing onward, hikers will encounter a series of a half-dozen more falls, each within a 10-minute walk of each other. To cool off after all that hiking, wear a bathing suit to soak in the natural pools that form below the falls. Entrance to the Nambillo Waterfall Sanctuary is $5, which includes a thrilling ride on a tarabita cableway to access the hiking trails.
3. El Chorro de Girón Waterfall
This 70-meter (230-foot) high waterfall dramatically plummets down from the Andes into a cloud forest environment. Known as Cascada El Chorro or the Giron Waterfall, it’s takes just a short hike of less than a kilometer to access on trails draped floras. This lesser-visited beauty can be accessed from the city of Cuenca. It’s about a 1.5-hour trip and the entrance will set you back $2.
- Discover Ecuador’s Ancient Inca Ruins
Ecuador holds many Inca ruins scattered across the country. One such archeological site can be found from right within the colonial city of Cuenca. The Pumapungo ruins in Cuenca are believed to be a part of the ancient city of Tomebamba that was first inhabited by the Cañari people before the Incas overtook it for use as a fort. It’s easily accessed in town and is free to enter. Part of the ancient Inca Trail (a popular pursuit in Peru to Machu Picchu) also runs through Ecuador. A 40-kilometer section of the UNESCO-listed Camino de Inca (Inca Trail) can be traversed from Alchupallas to Ingapirca. Ancient bridges, crumbling structures, and former Incan towns are passed along the way across this centuries-old trail through the Andes. Experienced trekkers with gear and navigation can give it a go on their own. But Ecuador’s Inca Trail is best approached as a guided trek. Ecuador’s Inca Trail ultimately leads to the ruins of Ingapirca, which can also be accessed by roadway. Ingapirca is the best-preserved and largest Inca ruin site in Ecuador. The stone terraces, walkways, and buildings at Ingapirca are punctuated by the impressive Sun Temple. Slits in the temple align perfectly with the sun on solstice days.
- Hike to one of Ecuador’s Spectacular Crater Lakes
Ecuador boasts three massively impressive crater lakes! Each one is a visual spectacle, special in its own merits. The Quilotoa Crater, El Altar, and Laguna Cuicocha should each be considered based upon location and the effort involved to reach. The Quilotoa Crater and Laguna Cuicocha can be accessed by bus or tour. But trekking around the craters is highly recommended. Meanwhile, El Altar is more remote and can only be reached by hiking in.
1. Hike Ecuador’s Most Popular Trekking Route: Quilotoa Loop
Quilotoa’s gorgeous three-kilometer wide caldera is a spectacular sight to see. This former volcano collapsed from an eruption, estimated to have occurred about 600 years ago. It now lays filled with water, transformed as a deep crater lake. It’s easily possible to trek down into the Quilotoa crater as a day trip from Quito. But for a more complete trek around the Quilotoa Crater, consider embarking on the 3-day Quilotoa Loop trek. This 34-kilometer trek is along a well-worn trail that connects farming communities. It’s in these Andean villages where hostels are found, offering comfy places to sleep and homecooked meals to eat. So packs can stay light! This is Ecuador’s most popular trekking route and one of the most enjoyable multi-day treks we’ve completed in South America.
2. Climb to the Rim of El Altar for High Andes Adventure
El Altar is a collapsed volcano near Riobamba that now contains a beautiful crater lake known as Laguna Amarilla. The El Altar Crater is also part of Sangay National Park. That’s recognized as Ecuador’s only other natural UNESCO World Heritage Site, right alongside the Galapagos Islands. The trek to El Altar takes 2-3 days to complete the 35-kilometers roundtrip hike. But beware that it is more challenging than the aforementioned Quilotoa Loop. The trek to El Altar is more remote, more grueling, often muddy, more planning is involved, and hikers must pack in all of their food and supplies. Yet the payoff for this extra effort is very rewarding.
3. Trek around this Gorgeous “Guinea Pig” Lake: Laguna Cuicocha
This stunning slice of nature is the result of yet another exploded volcano, occurring over 3,000 years ago. Although the two islands scenically popping out from the middle of the lake were formed during subsequent eruptions. Those islands are thought to resemble the backs of two guinea pigs. Hence the name of this lake, Cuicocha, which means “guinea pig lake” in the indigenous Kichwa language. This impressive crater lake is impossibly blue on a clear day. Laguna Cuicocha is accessible as a day excursion from Quito that also includes a visit to the Otavalo markets. Yet those who visit by day trip may only have enough time to gaze out upon the crater lake. If staying in nearby Otavalo or Cotacachi, it’s possible to reach the crater lake by public bus and taxi. That will provide visitors enough time to trek the entire 14-km perimeter of the crater lake and even take a boat ride around the namesake islands.
- Go Birdwatching in one of the Best Birding Destinations in the World: Mindo
Ecuador holds so many awesome birdwatching opportunities throughout the country. In the Galapagos, birders can find blue-footed boobies, endemic Galapagos hawks, finches, frigate birds, and more. In the Andes, some travelers are lucky enough to spot an Andean Condor. In the Amazon, toucans and colorful parrots thrive. Yet there’s another destination that is renown across the world for its vast birding opportunities. The Mindo Cloud Forest is one of the premier birding destinations on earth! More than 500 different types of birds have been spotted in Mindo. In fact, Mindo regularly holds the annual world record for the most bird species counted within a 24-hour period. Birders travel to Mindo specifically searching for varieties of toucans, parrots, quetzals, and even umbrellabirds! Yet one of the most sought-after birds to spot in Mindo is the Andean cock-of-the-rock, also known locally as gallo de la peña. This elusive red bird is known for its early-morning lek. That’s a song-and-dance males perform as a competitive courting ritual to impress the females. Even for those not into birding, Mindo can be a perfect place for beginners to give it a try. Grab a pair of binoculars and set off on one of the many birding tours that are offered through the area. Yet it’s also possible to go hiking through the cloud forest on your own in an attempt to spot some of Mindo’s avian life. And it takes no effort at all to spot the many hummingbirds buzzing around.
- Mountain Bike Down the Andes Mountains
Ecuador has some awesome downhill bike rides for adventure-seekers who want to fly down the Andes on two wheels! There are great opportunities to rent bikes in Ecuador or join a cycling day tour through some of the most scenic locations. (1) Mountain biking down Chimborazo, (2) though the Waterfall Route from Baños, and (3) down the Cotapaxi Volcano round out our top three suggestions for biking adventures in Ecuador.
- Swing off the End of the World!
Ecuador has a love affair with large crazy swings that fly high over cliffsides. The swing at Casa de Arbol in Baños is thought to be the original and has become the most popular of Ecuador’s high-flying swings. But other imitators have since popped up in additional places throughout the country that we’d dare say may be even better than the original!
- Go Ziplining through the Cloud Forest
There are a number of great ziplining runs throughout Ecuador. You can find ziplines in the Andes surrounding Cuenca and others soaring over canyons near Baños. Yet we suggest the best ziplining opportunity in Ecuador is the canopy tours offered through the lush Mindo Cloud Forest. Mindo may be best known for birding. Yet it is also becoming an awesome hub for adventure pursuits in this unique cloud forest environment. There are some serious ziplining routes in Mindo to soar amongst the toucans. It takes more than an hour to complete all ten zip-lines that add up to a 3,640-meter long course (nearly 12,000 feet). Yet it only costs $20 USD for the entire length of this awesome canopy tour. It’s not only one of Mindo’s best activities. Their ziplining courses are firmly one of the best things to do in Ecuador!
With fast-moving rivers flowing down the Andes mountains, there are some excellent whitewater rafting opportunities in Ecuador! Down towards the Amazon basin, the town of Tena is a main base for whitewater rafting activity in Ecuador. The Jatunyacu River, which flows into the Napo River, is a major tributary to the Amazon. And it makes for some fine whitewater rafting. It’s not every day you can have the opportunity to go whitewater rafting in the Amazon basin. The Jatunyacu River is the most popular whitewater run in the area, with class III+ rapids in a picturesque jungle setting. The rapids are mild enough for beginners, yet still offer some bouncy thrills across swift moving waves. Trips down the Jatunyacu are priced from $50 – $85 and many reputable operators can be found in Tena.
Moving further up in the Andes, the adventure hub of Baños offers some more whitewater action down the rushing Pastaza River. The dips and spills on class III & IV rapids can really add a jolt of adrenaline to any Ecuador trip! It’s a pretty setting too, given the river flows down amidst towering canyon walls in some sections. With prices set around $30 for the 5-hour rafting tour from Baños, it’s one of the most economical whitewater rafting trips we’ve encountered anywhere in the world. There’s no shortage of rafting operators around town offering the trip daily within this price range.
WHERE TO EAT IN ECUADOR
For the foreign traveler, Ecuador provides an adventure into sampling a selection of colorful cuisine, some of which is older than even the Incas. Here are the list of Turisti-Info to the most traditional food to the area that you must try when you visit.
A very hardy, chunky, sacred stew, the tradition is to serve fanesca only once a year – the week before Easter Sunday. Among other ingredients it features figleaf gourd (“sambo”), squash, and a variety of beans – 12 in total – and grains including lentils, corn, fava beans, parsley and various herbs. Each of the 12 different beans represents an apostle, and a cut of salt cod alludes to Jesus. It is generally consumed only during lunchtime, in the presence of friends and family.
“Chugchucaras” is a word in the Quechua, the Pre-Colombian language of the locals that translates into “chest-feet-skin,” with said parts belonging specifically to a pig. In addition to the chunks of deep fried pork, pork rinds, and pig’s feet, however, the platter features boiled hominy (coarse ground corn), small potatoes, toasted corn, plantain and a small, cheese-filled empanada. There’s an urban legend that the pig itself is cooked with the waters of a local fountain, San Martin, to provide it a “miraculous” flavor.
Guaguas de pan, or “bread children,” prepared during Day of the Dead celebrations, is another exotic Ecuadorian food that has a unique religious association. These sweet pastries filled with jelly are meant to resemble infants tightly wrapped in swaddling clothes – though it might also be a distant echo of the Pre-Colombian tradition of mummifying the dead. Thus, not all pastries are consumed, but taken and left on the tombstones of the dearly departed. The guaguas – another Quechuan word – are served with a thick, sweet, brewed purple beverage known as a colada morada, featuring blueberry, blackberry, pineapple rind and sugars and spices.
The quinoa grain has been a staple of the Andes going back to even pre-Incan society. The most commonly sold and consumed quinoa is ivory quinoa, though black and red quinoa is almost as popular; studies suggest there are as many as three thousand different varieties. Increasingly attracting attention to the wider world due to its high concentration of protein and lack of gluten, there as many ways to serve up quinoa in Ecuador as there are to serve up rice, though many enjoy simple quinoa soup, made with onion, butter, and salt.
Commonly sold on street corners, a large plantain – a cousin of the banana – cut down the middle, filled with a slice of mozzarella and roasted over a grill has been a popular, inexpensive – USD$1 – and surprisingly nutritious fast food for decades in Ecuador.
Ceviche – a cold serving of marinated seafood – is ubiquitous in any Latin America nation that borders an ocean, but Ecuadorian ceviche has its own slight distinctions. Like Peruvian ceviche, it features seabass and shrimp. Unlike the Peruvian variety, it’s served along with the very juices it has been prepared in. It is usually served with toasted corn, popcorn, and/or plantain chips.
Llapingachos – pronounced ya-peen-gah-choes – technically are friend potato patties stuffed with cheese, but they are also sometimes prepared with flour made from yuca, a root vegetable. The patties are also served with peanut sauce. The dish originated in the city of Ambato, and is especially popular with people living in Ecuador’s sierras.
Made from a combination of milk, sugar, and a ground white corn native to Ecuador, morocho – a thick, sweet beverage, like the aforementioned colada morada – is commonly sold on street corners and open-air markets. Prepared with vegetables and with less sugar, it can also be offered up as a soup.
Similar to the Mexican tamale, quimbolitos offer ground corn or occasionally quinoa, wrapped in palm leaves and steam-cooked. They often have raisins and are offered as a dessert treat, but they can just as well include beef, chicken, pepper, and a diced hard-boiled egg and be served as a main meal.
Made from crushed green (meaning not-ripe) plantain, a bolon de verde – which roughly translates into “green ball” – is like a large dumpling. Lovers of fried food should relish a bolon de verde, since the core ingredient is fried once to soften it, before being mashed and mixed with pork and/or cheese, formed into a ball, then fried again.
The yuca root – also known as cassava – is the third most popular source of carbohydrates in the world, even if largely unknown in North America and Europe. Fried yuca is as common as French fries. The gluten-free starch derived from the yuca root is used to make tapioca.
WHERE TO SHOP IN ECUADOR
Trading in Ecuador is a time-old tradition, making shopping in the country a firm favorite. Highlighting Ecuador’s tactile skills are the many local markets where handicrafts like cheeseboards, rugs and jewelry are sold in abundance. Every knickknack imaginable can be found in the markets, as well as more contemporary items like football t-shirts. Shopping malls are covered across the country too, selling diverse apparel for every occasion, books, technology, home décor and food.
As the country’s capital and most populous area, Quito has a wide range of shopping options. Shopping centers are a popular choice and an easy go-to, but for authentic Ecuadorian items, Quito will not disappoint. The Olga Fisch Gallery shows off Ecuador’s artisans with exquisite pieces of clothing, paintings and crafts. At Tianguez Ecuador’s many indigenous tribes are apparent through the primitive paintings, trinkets and fine art. In Quito’s market area you can also find a variety of aromatic herbs, exotic barks, leaves and seeds often used by indigenous people for medicinal purposes.
Cuenca holds the country’s most famous hatter, Alberto Pulla, an 81 year old who died in 2010 whose masterpieces have topped the heads of many, from indigenous locals to presidents. The chemicals he once used in the production process damaged his throat and left him with no voice. Visitors are welcomed into his shop to try on the panamas but Panamas aren’t the only item Cuenca has going for it: ceramic artist Eduardo Vega also lives in the area and his intricate artistry is seen at his local studio.
For a taste of traditional life, visit one of the many Andean villages where they continue to trade with neighboring communities on a weekly basis. The markets are startlingly colorful, with countless fruits and patterned materials on display. As a visitor it’s a great way to experience local life, taste traditional foods and discover some truly unique buys.
An entire block of Downtown Guayaquilis is taken over by local artisans selling their carefully crafted wares. Typically Ecuadorian items make an appearance here, like panama hats, knickknacks and Otavalo-style sweaters, but you can also find internationally branded items to please the masses. Make sure to bring your bargaining skills with you as the art is fully expected in Guayaquil.
Lying northwest of Otavalo, Cotacachi is the top notch choice when it comes to shopping for leather goods: it’s a leather lover’s haven. Bags and satchels rival ladies’ purses and men’s wallets, belts line up next to shoes of various size and design. Jackets are a stylish choice, while shoes are a sensible one, given that the leather here is excellent quality and sold at a reasonable price.
Otavalo is Ecuador’s, and perhaps South America’s, most famous market. Selling alpaca sweaters, hand crafted goods, paintings, jewelry, rugs and more, it is the ideal place to discover Ecuador’s artistic skills and pick up some unique souvenirs. Early risers can visit the Saturday morning animal market too, where locals show off their beasts and push a hard bargain with other traders.
‘Bartering’ or ‘bargaining’ is expected in Ecuador’s markets, so don’t be afraid to give it a go. The food at markets is also very good and very cheap, so make sure not to eat too much before visiting. Carrying small change is a good idea to avoid embarrassment or trouble breaking into larger notes.