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22 Best Places to Visit in Ecuador

Ecuador is where this whole expat journey of mine began. It wasn’t the home I chose for myself but instead where I was placed as a Peace Corps volunteer. Although it wasn’t on my radar at the time, it was a country I quickly fell in love with.

Two and a half years flew by. So fast that I thought I still wasn’t ready to move on. There are a lot of reasons Ecuador was the perfect country for me to start my expat journey but one of the highlights is certainly the landscape.

Ecuador is an incredibly beautiful country and one that’s super easy to explore thoroughly. It’s small – a little smaller than Nevada or Italy – but given its shape, it’s fairly compact. In one of my busiest weeks there, I went from the coast to the Andes Mountains to the rainforest to the Galapagos. Although I’m an avid slow traveler and don’t recommend you rush your way through a country like that, in Ecuador it’s actually possible.

Given its geographical location, it’s home to 4 distinct ecosystems (and in such a small space!):

  • The jagged peaks of the Andes Mountains
  • The long Pacific coastline
  • The lush Amazon Rainforest
  • The totally unique Galapagos Islands

Alongside its neighbors Colombia and Peru, it’s one of the world’s most biodiverse countries. With so much going on, it’s no wonder there are so many stunning places to visit in Ecuador. I’ve done my best to narrow it down to my personal favorite spots but trust me, if you have the time, there are far more stunning places to visit.

A Note on the Weather

You might be stressing about the best time to visit Ecuador. While there’s more to it than this, a big thing to keep in mind is that countries near the equator don’t have 4 seasons. Instead, their climate is based on their altitude.

So, the higher the altitude, the colder it’ll be year-round. On the flip side, towns at sea level are always hot, the only variety comes with the amount of rain it gets each month.

How to Travel within Ecuador

By Local Bus

Traveling within Ecuador is fairly easy but you will need to put a whole lot of trust in the hands of the local bus drivers. And those people drive as if their first born will be sacrificed if they don’t arrive at a certain time.

While this is nerve-racking anywhere in the country, it’s especially so if you’re traversing from one mountain town to another on the curvy, windy roads. That being said, I wouldn’t recommend a seat in the front where you can really see where you’re going. Instead, choose ignorance and grab a seat in the middle of the bus.

While these buses are literally a wild ride, the best time to take one is at night. Getting from Point A to Point B in Ecuador might take longer than it looks on the map given the road conditions and lack of major highways so if it’s a longer ride, book a night bus so you don’t waste one of your travel days.

By Private Car

It’s also possible to rent a car and drive yourself. It’s a great way to have some freedom in your itinerary. I’d definitely recommend it on the coast. The road hugs the Pacific Ocean and will take you through countless towns to stop at. If you’re driving through the mountains, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have previous experience driving through South America.

If you’d like the privacy and comfort of a car but don’t want to drive yourself, you can always book a driver. This is common if you’re driving between two relatively known tourist destinations.

By Plane

It’s also possible to fly within the country. Unless you’re going between major cities like Guayaquil and Quito, you’ll most likely be on relatively small plane. This isn’t a problem unless you happen to have a fear of flying.

Alright, now that you know how you’ll travel, let’s dive into the good stuff and decide where you’ll visit in Ecuador.

Best Places to Visit in the Mountains

Given that Ecuador sits on the equator (get the country’s name now?), you probably don’t associate the country with snowy mountains. You’re in for a treat! This country has some incredible mountain towns, some warm, some incredibly cold, for you to visit.

Otavalo/Cotacachi

Starting in the north of the country, Otavalo is home to the largest market in South America in Plaza de los Ponchos. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better place in Ecuador to pick up local goods for your friends, family, and of course, yourself.

While some items might look mass produced, you can certainly find artisanal items here, you just might have a look a little harder.

If you’re more interested in leather goods than textiles one, head a little farther north to the small town of Cotacachi.

When shopping, it’s important you realize that bargaining is a part of the culture in Latin America and many people will expect you to do it. There is a craft to this so it might take some time to get used to it but if you do it with charisma and without trying to buy the item for pennies, the locals welcomingly accept the challenge. If it’s a hand-crafted piece, know that your money spent directly supports the artisan.

Mindo

Although in the mountain region, Mindo is actually a cloud forest. This ecosystem is highly rare, as cloud forests are only found in a few countries in the world. Just for that alone, it’s worth the visit.

The landscape is green and lush due due to all of the rain. There are plenty of waterfalls to see and it’s the perfect place to go rafting if you want an adrenaline rush.

Mindo is also one of the best places for bird watching, butterflies, and orchids. It’s a real paradise for nature lovers looking to relax or enjoy watersports.

Quito

Welcome to Ecuador’s capital city, Quito. Although I’m typically a bigger fan of nature and small towns, Quito has a lot of charm and hosts plenty of great things to do. In my opinion, it’s one of the best places to visit in South America as a whole. Quito is also the second highest capital city in the world, behind La Paz, Bolivia, at 2,784 meters or 9,133 feet above sea level. Keep that in mind when you arrive – you might need some time to acclimate before you take on the city’s hills without getting winded.

Quito hosts many modern amenities, malls, and things you’ll find in any number of cities throughout the world but the real charm lies in the cobbled streets in the Old Town, or Centro Histórico. I highly recommend you booking a place to stay in this area and explore the colonial architecture by foot.

While in Quito’s Old Town, be sure to visit:

  • Take a look at La Campaña
  • Stroll down La Ronda
  • Go inside Basílica del Voto Nacional for great views

If you’re interested in Inca heritage or that of other indigenous groups, there’s a plethora of museums to choose between.

Keep in mind that since this is the biggest tourist destination in Quito, you may encounter more pickpockets or petty theft here. This isn’t to deter you from visiting but instead as a reminder to keep your belongings in your site and don’t leave your phone hanging out of your back pocket or your bookbag draped on your seat while eating or grabbing a drink.

If you want some fresh air while in Quito, get outside in one of these places:

  • Carolinas Park – this city park is a great place to take a break and people watch
  • Take the Quito Teleferico – I recommend wearing your hiking boots and summiting Rucu Pichincha but do note it’s a challenging hike with the summit at 4,698 m or 15,413 ft above sea level.

Cotopaxi National Park

Another claim to fame, Ecuador is home to the 3rd highest active volcano in the world: Cotopaxi Volcano. Just seeing this beauty in person is something you’ll hardly forget.

Although not Ecuador’s highest peak (that’s Chimborazo), Cotopaxi reaches 5,897 m or 19,347 ft. While it’s possible to summit Cotopaxi, it’s a highly technical hike and one that you should only attempt if you feel truly prepared. You’ll need to take into account the snow/ice, altitude, and physical strength needed to do so.

Regardless of if you decide to hike it or not, I highly recommend staying a night or two just outside of the national park so you can enjoy the stunning views, clean mountain air, and star-speckled nights.

If you want to do a hike in the area, I recommend Rumiñawi. This hike is similar to Rucu Pichincha and can either be done to help acclimate you for Cotopaxi or in lieu of.

Quilatoa Lake

Heading farther south along the ridge of the Andes Mountain is this stunning crater lake. Quilatoa is so shocking due to it’s brightly hued water, which contrasts greatly to the stony walled sides of it. Swimming isn’t allowed here but you can rent kayaks and explore the lake that way.

You can visit Quilatoa as a short day trip and simply walk to the base of the lake and back up (or just eye it from the rim) or you can turn it into a multi-day adventure and embark on the Quilatoa Loop Trail. This route typically starts and ends in Latacunga and takes you through remote villages and epic views.

Guaranda

Salinas de Guaranda doesn’t make it on many lists as a popular tourist destination but there’s a lot to love in this small town, mainly if you adore cheese and chocolate like I do.

If you’re looking for a place in Ecuador that’s off the radar of many travelers and one where you can directly support the local economy, it’s this town. Here you can go on tours of their cheese factory, learn how to make chocolate (you have to try the white fruit inside of cocoa plants!), and see how wool is spun into yarn.

Plus, if you’re in town for Carnival, the party here will not disappoint. Locals flock to this town during Carnival and you should, too. Get ready for foam, colored flour, and plenty of water to be thrown on you during the festivities. Stock up with your own supply and join in on the fun!

Cuenca

When I lived in Ecuador, Cuenca was by far one of my favorite places to visit in Ecuador. I loved this city and couldn’t get enough of it! Part of the reason I loved it so much is simply for it’s beauty. The colonial architecture of the city is well-preserved and makes walking around aimlessly a pure joy.

Every time I’d get my first glimpse at the blue domed roofs at Cuenca’s New Cathedral, I’d get a little giddy. Between the architecture, beautiful landscape, and rich culture, Cuenca is a place most travelers fall in love with.

Cuenca’s Tomebamba riverfront is a great place to relax, enjoy the fresh air, and take a rest in the sun. I recommend finding a sun patch of grass and bringing a book to truly enjoy the ambiance for an hour or two.

You can also visit the Pumapungo Archaeological Park to see the largest remaining Incan ruins. Although not nearly as impressive as other historical sites in Central and South America, it’s a good place to visit in Ecuador if you’re interested in learning about its ancient history.

The real reason I loved Cuenca so much? Las Cajas National Park! As you can see by now, I’m an avid hiker and love nothing more than a city that combines aesthetically pleasing architecture with equally as pleasing natural surroundings. There are a big number of hikes in the park, ranging from easy to difficult, so you’ll be sure to find something to fit your interests. Just get ready for a landscape that looks otherworldly!

Loja

Loja, located in southern Ecuador, is known as the music capital of the country, although there’s more to this city than just that. For starters, there’s a city gate marking the entrance of the city that looks far more European than Latino.

Although still in the mountains, Loja feels warmer and looks more lush than much of the highlands. While in Loja, spend some time in San Sebastian Independence Plaza. The brightly painted balconied houses are a real treat.

If you’re eager to see more that the surrounding area has to offer, plan a trip to Podocarpus National Forest. This park is known as the Botanical Garden of America and is a great place to see a variety of flowers, birds, and mammals.

Best Places to Visit Along the Coast

After enjoying all that the Andes Mountains have to offer in Ecuador, let’s head to the Pacific Ocean to explore the best places to visit in coastal Ecuador.

If you’d rather spend your entire trip on the coast, the best way to experience it is by driving it. The entire coast of Ecuador runs along the Ruta del sol, or sun route. You can start at the border of Colombia and make it to the border of Peru without making but just a few turns which is pretty incredible.

There are countless small towns that litter the sun route but these are my top recommendations for places to visit in Ecuador along the coast.

Esmeraldas

Esmeraldas is a larger city and is the hub of Afro-Ecuadorian culture. The nightlife and food in this city really shine. While in Esmeraldas, you need to do yourself a favor and try the local dish, encocao. Encocao is a stew made from coconut milk and fish or other seafood. It’s usually served over a bed of rice and fried plantain chips (platanitos).

While Esmeraldas is in the so-called Green Providence, you won’t see much of that in the city itself but you’ll be rewarded with lush, junglesque beaches just outside of it.

Mompiche

Mompiche is one of those beaches. While you won’t find much of the excitement as in Esmeraldas, that’s part of the charm here. This laid-back fishing village is the perfect to do absolutely nothing but enjoy the ocean and long sandy beach.

You’ll really be back to the basics here, so if you’re looking to disconnect, do it in Mompiche.

Puerto Lopez

Farther south along the ruta del solo, and you’ll run into Puerto Lopez. Still a small fishing town, it fits in between Mompiche and Esmeraldas in terms of traffic and things to do. I took my family here on one of their visits to Ecuador and they still rave about the seafood meals we’d eat with our toes in the sand and that they’re the best they’ve ever had.

After getting a full belly of fresh seafood, spend the day in Playa de los Frailes in Machalilla National Park. You can take a tuk-tuk up the coast to the national park for just a few dollars. The half moon bay here is stunning but it gets even prettier if you walk the short trail to the look out tower.

During whale season (June-October), Puerto Lopez is the perfect place to go out for a guided tour. The boats get a little too close for comfort at times but if you want to go whale watching on a budget, this is the place to do it.

Ayampe

As far as coastal places to visit in Ecuador go, Ayampe is my favorite. It’s incredibly laidback, just like Mompiche and the waves are a bit more epic, but there’s something about that just sets me at ease.

It’s probably the blue and green stones that replace the sand in some areas.

This is a popular surf town that I imagine will only grow in popularity throughout the years but it’s worth a try before travelers flock to this oasis.

Montañita

Let’s end the coastal route on a party note. Montañita is the place to go if you really want to go wild. If you’re looking for a laid back spot to catch some rays, this is not the spot for you. It’s instead the spot for you to catch rays during the day and stay up all night dancing, drinking, and laughing.

Montañita gained it’s popularity as a surf town and has grown into something much more touristic since. In my younger, wilder days, I loved letting loose here, now, I’d head to Ayampe instead.

I lived in a small coastal town near the border of Peru and in all honestly, the beaches farther south than Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, aren’t worth the effort. There’s a lot of mangroves and small, quiet beaches but the beaches farther north are far more picturesque.

Intelliness

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