The Best Places to Visit in Ecuador

Ecuador shocks many visitors with the quality of its beaches
Ecuador shocks many visitors with the quality of its beaches | © Jesse Kraft / Alamy Stock Photo
Joel Rabinowitz

From the snow-capped peaks of the Andes mountains to the idyllic beaches of the Pacific Coast and the colorful colonial architecture of Quito, Ecuador is a country brimming with natural and cultural wonders. To help you plan your trip, we’ve selected the best destinations to visit and things to do in Ecuador.

1. Quito

Architectural Landmark

Panecillo Hill, Quito Ecuador South America
© Kumar Sriskandan / Alamy Stock Photo

At 2,850m (9,350ft), Quito is the world’s second-highest capital city and contains many of Ecuador’s most important religious landmarks. Within its Unesco-listed historic center, the Church of La Compañía de Jesús, the Presidential Palace and the San Francisco Church and Monastery display some of South America’s most beautifully preserved colonial architecture. For superb aerial views, climb up the Basilica del Voto Nacional or ride the TelefériQo gondola to Pichincha – the volcano which overlooks the city. At the Intiñan Museum, north of the city center, you can snap a photo at the equator.

With Culture Trip, you can enjoy a guided walking tour of Quito and visit the equator as part of our exclusive eight-day Ecuador adventure, led by our Local Insider.

2. Galápagos Islands

Natural Feature

Renowned for informing Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, the Galápagos Islands are a volcanic archipelago comprising 13 main islands and over 100 smaller islands, islets and rocks, around 620mi (998km) off the coast of mainland Ecuador. They’re home to an abundance of endemic species, including Galápagos Giant Tortoises, Galápagos Sea Lions and Marine Iguanas, with landscapes varying from lava fields to mangroves and cactus forests. You can fly to the Galápagos from either Quito or Guayaquil, which takes around two hours, and you’ll find the best choice of accommodation and restaurant options on Santa Cruz or San Cristóbal.

Are the Galápagos on your travel bucket list? Consider joining Culture Trip’s express five-day overland Galápagos Islands trip, which includes Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal and a visit to one of the uninhabited islands.

3. Cotopaxi National Park

Park

Cotopaxi volcano, Ecuador, Andes, Cotopaxi National Park
© blickwinkel / Alamy Stock Photo
Just a two-hour drive south of Quito, the Cotopaxi National Park looks and feels much more remote than it actually is. Part of the Avenue of Volcanoes – a chain of volcanoes running down the Andean spine of Ecuador – it’s dominated by the glacier-capped Cotopaxi volcano (Ecuador’s second-highest peak). If you’re up for the challenge of hiking to the summit, it’s essential to acclimatize to the high altitude first and go with an experienced guide. Alternatively, follow the trail around Limpiopungo Lake for a much less strenuous but similarly scenic hike.

5. Guayaquil

Natural Feature

Guayaquil
© Wilfrido Lucero / Alamy Stock Photo

Known as The Pearl of the Pacific, Guayaquil – Ecuador’s most populous city – is within relatively easy reach of some of the country’s best beaches, such as Salinas, Montañita and Puerto Lopez. Not just a convenient hub for exploring the coast or flying to the Galápagos, there’s plenty to see and do in the city itself: admire free-roaming iguanas in Parque Seminario, learn about Guayaquil’s heritage at the Parque Histórico, or take a stroll along Malecón 2000 – the lively promenade which runs along the Guayas River, lined with gardens, monuments, museums, bars and restaurants.

6. Baños de Agua Santa

Natural Feature

Ecuador’s adventure capital and gateway to the Amazon, Baños de Agua Santa is named after its mineral-rich hot springs (geothermally heated by the Tungurahua volcano), which are said to have myriad health benefits. Although compact, the town has a fairly extensive selection of budget and luxury accommodation and is an excellent base for venturing into the nearby nature. Go whitewater rafting on the Pastaza River, rent bikes and cycle the Ruta de las Cascadas (Waterfall Route) to Puyo, or ride the iconic Swing at the End of the World – one of South America’s most Instagrammable spots.

7. Otavalo

Architectural Landmark, Natural Feature

Otavalo market stalls, Otavalo, Ecuador South America
© Kumar Sriskandan / Alamy Stock Photo

Otavalo, two hours’ drive north of Quito, in the Imbabura Province, is a mountain town of around 40,000 people – who are largely indigenous to the region. The town’s market – locally known as Plaza de los Ponchos – was designed and built by Dutch architect Tonny Zwollo in 1970, and has since flourished to become one of the largest in South America. You’ll find everything from woolen blankets and jumpers to handcrafted jewelry and traditional street food in the kaleidoscopic labyrinth of stalls. It’s open every day from 7am-6pm, and tends to be busiest on Saturdays.

8. Amazon rainforest

Park

Ecuador only contains a tiny portion of the Amazon rainforest’s total area (around two percent), but it’s still the largest of the country’s four main regions, covering six provinces. The 2.4 million-acre (971,246ha) Yasuni National Park is one of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems, home to over 1400 species of amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, including jaguars, giant armadillos and white-bellied spider monkeys. If you’re keen to spot wildlife and experience a total contrast to the rugged Andean landscapes, Coca, Tena and Nueva Loja are all convenient starting points – accessible by road from Quito.

9. Cuenca

Architectural Landmark

Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, built in 1885, Cuenca, Ecuador
© Peter Adams Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

Cuenca, established in 1557, but not connected by paved road to the rest of Ecuador until the early 1960s, is Ecuador’s third-largest city. Often labeled the Athens of Ecuador due to its rich cultural and architectural heritage, Cuenca is split into old and new districts by the Tomebamba River. Its Unesco-listed Old Town features an array of colonial buildings, including the Old Cathedral, the Church of San Francisco and the Church of Santo Domingo. Meanwhile, the blue-domed New Cathedral (constructed between 1885-1975), is striking inside and out and offers magnificent views from the top.

10. Pacific Coast

Natural Feature, Hiking Trail

Stretching all the way from the Colombian border in the north to the Peruvian border in the south, Ecuador’s Pacific Coast is often overlooked by travelers but offers a refreshing change of scenery from the mountainous and jungle-covered interior. Salinas and Playas are two of the most popular resorts, while Montañita, slightly further up the coast, is renowned for its nightlife and outstanding surfing conditions. For peaceful, golden sand beaches without the crowds, Bahía de Caráquez, Los Frailes (part of the Machalilla National Park) and Mompiche are worth considering.

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