Things to Do | Best Time to Visit | Regional Travel Guides
Updated January 2020
It’s no secret that we love Ecuador to bits – not only because it’s home to the Galapagos Islands, about the best place on earth to see unique marine life – but also because it offers such a varied and impressive array of experiences and activities. Our 12 favourite things to do in Ecuador not only offer a glimpse into the country’s amazing offerings – but can be easily combined to create a single, unforgettable journey. If slow and immersive travel is on your must-do list for 2020, you really couldn’t choose a more rewarding destination.
Have a few weeks to spare and crave to explore one South American country, in a myriad of ways?
Highlights of Ecuador
1. Meet the Giant Tortoises of the Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos archipelago is one of the best wildlife-watching destinations on earth and, in South America, they reign supreme. Peppered with a mammoth array of endemic species not found anywhere else, these marvellous volcanic islands are Ecuador’s biggest draw. Here, you can waddle with the world’s northernmost penguins, watch fierce battles among territorial marine iguanas, swim with seals and be enchanted by the mating dance of the waved albatross, blue-footed boobies and flightless cormorant. Plus, you get to meet the Giant Galapagos Tortoise, the most iconic resident and the one after which the islands are named. Over a dozen islands to explore by yacht and one of the continent’s most unforgettable destinations – the Galapagos are everyone’s #1!
2. Kayak through otherworldly canyons at Las Grietas, Galapagos
The jagged crevasses that tumble into the crystalline waters of Santa Cruz’s southern coast offer jaw-dropping swimming and kayaking. The ethereal canyons have traditionally been one of the Galapagos’ most hidden of treasures yet thanks to their Instagrammable beauty they are now among the most coveted. Head here either before or after your yacht trip and discover yet another startling corner of these incredible isles.
3. Discover Old Town Quito
The second-highest capital in the world showcases an intoxicating mix of architecture and nature, with the colonial core of Quito being framed by dazzling snow-capped peaks. This historic city, assigned UNESCO heritage listing over 40 years ago (the first in the world to be awarded the illustrious tag) is home to South America’s largest neo-gothic cathedral, among a flurry of quaint laneways, plazas and mansions. New Town Quito, on the other hand, is all about fabulous restaurants, cafés and bars, and makes the better base given the exuberant night-life. As an intro to the country and an excuse to acclimatise to high altitudes, Quito is deserving of a few days, at the very least.
4. Explore Ingapirca, Ecuador’s very own Machu Picchu
The largest Inca archaeological site in Ecuador may not boast the fame and even setting of Machu Picchu, but given its pivotal importance and relative anonymity, it means a visit to this off-beat treasure can be just as rewarding. Take a knowledgeable guide who’ll bring these ruins to life and you’ll learn more about the incredible might of this ancient civilisation, their everyday life and how they constructed an entire city in what seems to be inhospitable terrain. The lack of crowds also means you can really take your time admiring the famed Inca stonework.
5. Stay in an eco-lodge in the Amazon rainforest
Sacha Lodge is one of the most respected beacons of sustainability in the Ecuadorian Amazon and offers extraordinary jungle experiences, including a private canopy walking trail that is out of this world. Nestled in the heart of pristine jungle, Sacha’s amazing conservation efforts have resulted in it becoming the single biggest private reserve in the country’s Amazonian basin. In this luscious yet dense jungle, wildlife watching can be tricky so the 245m-long canopy trail, built 30m above ground, offers an unparalleled viewing experience. Our Sacha Lodge stay is one of our favourite things to do in Ecuador and we think you’ll also fall in love with this magical place.
6. Get off the beaten trail in the lesser-known Choco Cloud Forest
Lesser-known than the Amazon proper but just as impressive, the Choco Cloud Forest of Ecuador encompasses one of the most undiscovered wildernesses in the world. Part of the Choco-Darien Region that runs along the western slopes of the Andes from Ecuador, all the way to Panama, Choco is incredibly biodiverse and most of its flora and fauna is yet to be thoroughly studied. Sitting at latitudes that range between 900 and 2,500masl, the floating cloud forest is a breath-taking place to experience and a side of the Amazon not many even know exists. More than 600 distinct species of birds have been spotted here, as well as unique monkeys (including the adorable marmoset, the smallest on earth), 200 fellow mammals and countless fascinating reptiles, fish and insects. Being so remote and undeveloped, accommodation choices are limited. Our tip? Come and get totally lost in this hidden wonder and spend a few spellbinding days at the Mashpi Lodge, one of NatGeo’s favourite eco-lodges, where the wildlife and wilderness experiences will just blow you away.
7. Reach the coast aboard the luxurious Tren Crucero
If you’re after an immersive travel experience in Ecuador, look no further than the luxury train ride from Quito to Guayaquil. From the highest peak of the highlands to the balmy coast, the 4-day Tren Crucero journey meanders through fantastical landscapes, and is a slow-travel experience that delivers on all counts: heavenly scenery, amazing service and delightful cuisine. If that’s not enough to convince you, do note that Guayaquil is the second casting-off point for visits to the Galapagos so if you’re landing in the capital intent on visiting the islands, and have a few days to spare, there really isn’t a better way to stretch and enjoy that amazing transfer.
8. Spend the night in an authentic hacienda in Otavalo
Revered for its weekly arts and craft market brimming with colourful hand-painted pottery, Otavalo is an unmissable destination in Ecuador. The Saturday Otavalo markets are amongst the most famous in South America, attracting indigenous sellers from near and far. They head here to trade their unique wares and offer, in our opinion, the best souvenirs in the country. Yet aside from the markets, a visit to Otavalo offers a glimpse into Ecuador’s traditional rural life and taking a few days to explore it at leisure is superbly rewarding. Spend a few days in an authentic Otavalo hacienda and you can really soak up the best this northern region of Ecuador has to offer and have a remarkable base to call home.
9. Take a road-trip along the Avenue of Volcanoes
An awesome road-trip route bursting with insane views is the name of the game along Ecuador’s famed Avenue of Volcanoes. Take a private guide and car (because driving and view-admiring along a twisting road in the Andes don’t mix well) and you can pick your jaw off the floor after 200 utterly unforgettable kilometres. This is the heart and core of the country’s indigenous lands, a road that snakes in the gap between the eastern and western mountain ranges, guiding you past fourteen sky-reaching volcanoes and offering so many side trips (like Laguna Quilotoa, below) that you could easily take 10 days to enjoy it thoroughly. South America boasts quite a few epic road-trip routes and this, in our humble opinion, is one of the most enchanting.
10. Tackle a hike around the Quilotoa volcanic caldera
A volcanic crater filled with sparkling emerald water, set amidst a backdrop of arresting peaks and dramatic valleys littered with traditional villages: Laguna Quilotoa is a true show-stopper. Formed after a volcanic eruption some 800 years ago, the Quilotoa crater lake is one of the highlights along the Avenue of Volcanoes and, on a crystal-clear day, it is stunning beyond words. You can tackle the 3-day Quilotoa Loop Trail (one of Ecuador’s best hiking trails), enjoy a more leisurely walk around the crater or simply walk down to the shore and spend the day kayaking and enjoying the views.
11. Get an eyeful of the Devil’s Cauldron Waterfall in Baños
Baños is renowned for being Ecuador’s waterfall capital yet among the many offerings, the Pailon del Diablo stands apart. This colossal beast is the last in a series of falls you’ll see along a hiking trail that follows the Rio Pastaza, a tributary of the Amazon River. Carving deep gorges into the volcanic landscape, the river delivers some of the most spectacular natural treasures you’ll ever see, a choice of access points (including a very beautiful walking trail that starts in the small town of Rio Verde) offering heart-stopping views along the whole way. Baños is an easy addition to your Avenue of Volcanoes road-trip.
12. Hike up the true highest peak on our planet, Chimborazo
Most visitors will be happy simply driving along the Avenue of Volcanoes, soaking up the views left, right and dead centre. However, if you’re the active explorer-type, you may just want to make a beeline for Chimborazo. Ecuador’s tallest peak stands at an already-impressive 6,310masl and although that’s about 2,500m lower than Everest, it rises at the widest point on Earth (the Equatorial bulge) and is actually the furthest point above sea level, from the centre of our planet (by about 2,000m). Impressive, right? Technicality aside, Chimborazo is a drop-dead-gorgeous peak and its summit reachable on a gruelling but phenomenal 2/3-day hike.
Food in Ecuador: Local Culinary Specialities
Ecuadorian food rates as one of the country’s very best highlights, and that’s saying a lot considering the extensive array of UNESCO-listed treasures and magical places you can visit. But hey…the taste buds also need a break for the ho-hum of everyday life, right?
Travel to Ecuador and you’ll be taking your taste-buds on an exciting and delectable adventure. Local cuisine changes dramatically as you travel through the regions, with geography and soil fertility adding to the intoxicating mix of ingredients. In the mountainous regions, menus rely heavily on meat and carbohydrates (you’ll need the extra energy, trust us), including guinea pig, chicken, pork and beef. Potatoes, corn and rice are staples throughout the country, as is plantain, which is normally grated, fried and served alongside most dishes.
Popular street snacks to look out for are hornado (a mouth-watering potato and roast pork dish), llanpigacho (grilled potato patties that go well with just about everything) and humitas (Ecuador’s version of the corn and onion tamale is the best because it’s filled with cheese and steamed rather than boiled).
The best time to visit Ecuador
Given that Ecuador straddles the equator, it means that average yearly temperatures stay rather constant, the only major climatic difference being the amount of rain each region receives. What differentiates temps, more than anything else, is altitude, hence the reason every region boasts its own distinct micro-climate.
The best time to visit the Ecuadorian Highlands
The nights are always cold in the high Andes of Ecuador so you’ll need to pack warm no matter when you visit. The driest months are between June and October and this is the period we’d recommend for tackling the volcano road trip and for any major hiking excursion. Expect days to be warm and skies to be bright blue and crystal clear. Naturally, high altitude destinations are always unpredictable and some rain (and even snow!) should be expected when mountaineering. Yet by and large, you’ll enjoy amazing weather as long as you don’t visit the highlands during the wettest month (Dec-April).
The best time to visit the Ecuadorian Amazon
Warm and humid all year long, the Amazon is a balmy place to explore at any time. The driest months are December to March, with August and September also seeing far fewer downpours. These are great months for lodge-based explorations, a time when jungle walks are easier and more rewarding. If you’d love to take an Amazon river cruise instead, choose the wettest months, which swell the rivers and allow for much deeper jungle explorations.
The best time to visit the Ecuadorian Coast & Galapagos Islands
Contrary to what you may imagine, the best time to enjoy the Ecuadorian beaches is during the wet season (Jan-May), when temps are slightly higher and short bursts of rain alternate with bright blue skies. This part of Ecuador sees the most dramatic seasonal differences and, in dry season, there’s a fog that moves in along the coast making for less than ideal beach-bumming. The Galapagos, on the other hand, are a year-round destination, each month offering unique wildlife events. If you’d love slightly warmer temps, however, visit between December and June yet if you don’t mind a slight chill in the air, to have a greater option of yacht availability, visit during the second-half of the year.
You can find out more about this stunning country in our Ecuador Blog Archive, where you’ll find a bevvy of informative pieces that’ll help you plan a unique and personal itinerary. Need some help? That’s what we’re here for! See our most popular Ecuador tour itineraries, check out the amazing experiences we offer in the Galapagos and Amazon Rainforest and, as always, contact us for more bespoke advice.