Enchanting Ecuador is a country of spectacular diversity. The high Andean valleys, pimpled with snow-capped volcanoes, stretch around the photogenic Spanish-colonial capital, Quito. In the east, the mountains drop through lush valleys where indigenous Quechua village life seems to have changed little in centuries, to the steamy jungles of the Amazon lowlands. To the west is the beach-fringed tropical coast, and far offshore in the shimmering Pacific, the Galápagos islands. There’s adventure everywhere. Solo Ecuador travelers will meet kindred spirits hiking the Andes, wildlife-watching in the Amazon or whitewater rafting.
Ecuador has Latin spirit, especially on the coast and along the Amazon: people are friendly, open-hearted and willing to go the extra mile to help. Nonetheless, there is some crime, and solo travelers, especially women, should exercise caution. By South American standards, the country is small and compact. It’s also cheap. So with short, easily affordable internal flights from Quito, you can visit the central highlands, the Amazon lowlands and the Galápagos in a single trip and in safety. Solo travelers need never be alone – there are plenty of organized group activities and trips on offer in the tourist hubs, as well as a good hostel network.
Ecuador is a long-haul flight from pretty much everywhere, and there’s lots to see and do. So allow at least 10 days – and add on eight more for a Galápagos cruise. All journeys begin and end in Quito. You’ll need at least two days here: one to acclimatize to the high altitude and another to see the old Spanish center. Take side trips to Cotopaxi National Park (for volcanic landscapes) and Otavalo (for indigenous life and South America’s best textiles market). Spend a few days in Baños village – biking to waterfalls in the mountains or whitewater rafting. Then fly into the Amazon for at least two nights in a jungle lodge. Finish with a Galápagos cruise or a few days on the beach at party-pumping Montañita. With more time, you can explore pretty Cuenca and the Inca ruins of Ingapirca, wellness retreats in the happy-hippy valley of Vilcabamba and the Mindo cloud forests.
You won’t find many international hotel chains outside Quito, but Ecuador has plenty of great places to stay for all budgets. Most hostels have separate dorms for women, and with so many group travel options on offer, it’s easy to hook up with companions and book out your own multi-bed room. Quito is packed with beautiful boutique hotels and arty hostels set in Spanish colonial-era townhouses. The adventure-tourism hub of Baños is stuffed with small spa resorts and backpacker bargains. And the Ecuadorean Amazon has some of the best jungle lodges in the world, with comfortable villa rooms. Galápagos cruises, which should be booked well in advance, come in all price points and comfort levels.
You could spend months here – immersing yourself in nature in the Galápagos and the Amazon, hiking through the Andes, wandering Inca ruins and marveling at the old Spanish architecture. But however long (or briefly) you stay, don’t skip these top three experiences.
Explore Cotopaxi National Park
The world’s most beautiful volcano? With its perfect snow-capped cone isolated in alpine meadows against a permanently blue sky, Ecuador’s Cotopaxi is hard to beat. See it on a horseback ride across the mountain pampas with local cowboys.
Stay in a jungle lodge
Flying to South America without a few days in the world’s largest rainforest is unthinkable. And Ecuador has some of the best jungle lodges anywhere. You’ll spend days watching rare wildlife from treetop canopy towers and canoes, and nights under the stars, falling asleep to the whirring sound of cicadas and the croaking of tree-frogs.
Cruise the Galápagos
You’ll need eight days to see the Galápagos, and the only way is on a cruise. But walking with tame wildlife on the volcanic islands, kayaking along the Itabaca Channel and snorkeling over the reef with marine iguanas and turtles all around make the long journey here worthwhile.
Citrusy ceviches, empanada patties right out of the oven, freshly cut mango and papaya… Ecuador will have your mouth watering from the moment you get off the plane.
Even in hostels, breakfast is a treat – with farm-to-table roasted Andean coffee, warm pan de yuca cheese breads, fruits and pastries. Feeling thirsty? Sample myriad exotic juices – say, tangy tree tomato or vitamin-packed capuli berry. There are great street eats, too: try Ecuador’s quimbolito tamales and bolón de verde plantain and meat dumplings. Quito is the gastronomic hub – with a string of great fine-dining restaurants serving ceviches and causas. And you don’t need to leave those recipes behind when you leave: learn how to cook them with Culture Trip in Quito.
With roads rough and poorly signposted and GPS unreliable, Ecuador isn’t the best place to rent a car. The most convenient way to solo travel is to choose your hubs – Quito and Cuenca in the mountains, a lodge in the Amazon, a beach town like Montañita – and take excursions from there. All the major hubs are connected by bus, or via Quito on short flights..
Pickpockets are common on public transport, so be vigilant of your belongings. Avoid wearing cameras around your neck or bling in public. If you take an unofficial yellow taxi in Quito, check that there’s a green sticker and ID number on the side. Uber is a good alternative.
Dress is more conservative than in North America or Mediterranean Europe, and a tidy appearance – especially when with officials – will win you more respect. Take your time – a person in a hurry will be miserable in Ecuador. Be aware of la hora ecuatoriana: arriving early for social engagements at someone’s house is considered rude; complaining when friends arrive at a social meeting half an hour late, which they always do, will be met with puzzled laughter.
If you’d rather join a small group of like-minded travelers than venture out solo, join Culture Trip’s eight-day loop around the country, Ecuador from the Amazon to the Andes, where you’ll see the essence of the nation, from mountains to elegant towns and masses of curious wildlife.