Even though Ecuador is home to one of South America’s Big Five attractions, the Galapagos Islands, it’s surprising to know that this unassuming country is still among the least-visited in the region. The surprise comes from knowing that Ecuador is actually one of the most rewarding destinations of all in the region, a country that’s often described as a ‘4-in-1’ thanks to its incredible natural diversity and sheer offerings of amazing things to see and do. Some of the continent’s most prominent archaeological sites, colonial cities, national parks and high Andean peaks are found right here, in a small and compact nation that offers high mountains, great beaches, luscious countryside and even a gorgeous swath of Amazon Rainforest. Fantastic hiking, history and nature-based experiences: that’s what Ecuador offers to the unsuspecting traveller, the same one who’s probably just ‘passing through’.
And that’s the best surprise of all.
Ready to stop and take in the delights? Here are just a few of the very best things to do in Ecuador. At the very bottom of the page, you’ll also find a short and sweet weather overview that’ll help you plan your visit.
1. Explore Old Town Quito
Founded over four centuries ago, the high-altitude capital of Quito – the second-highest city in the world – is a juxtaposition of old and new and a fantastic city to explore for a few days. The beautiful colonial core is a quaint maze of plazas, cobbled streets, churches and colourful street stalls, and was the first-ever UNESCO-listed city in the world (inscribed in 1978, alongside the Galapagos) something not many people even know. Easy to navigate on foot and a pleasure to discover, this is truthfully one of the most underrated cities in all of Latin America, home to the largest neo-gothic church in the entire continent. In the newer part of town, you’ll find a ‘tourist core’ with plenty of cafés, bars, restaurants and hotels and, with just a short taxi-ride, you can reach the base station of the Pichincha Volcano cable-car. This 4,700m-tall startling peak is Quito’s most impressive landmark and, thanks to the teleferico, you can get three-quarters of the way up the side of the mountain to soak up the jaw-dropping views. Read our Guide to Quito to see what else this wonderful city has to offer.
2. Cruise the Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos were never going to be far down the list of things to do in Ecuador, as they remain the main reason so many visit the country in the first place. This outstanding archipelago lies about 1,000km off the shores of the western shores and can easily be regarded as the very best wildlife-watching destination in the Americas and, for so many, a bucket-list destination bar none. A dozen or so islands, filled to the brim with a fantastical array of birds, marine and semi-aquatic animals not found anywhere else on earth – that just about sums up the Gaps in a crab-shell. Home to the world-famous Giant Tortoise, the Marine Iguana, Blue Footed Boobie, Flightless Cormorant, Sally Lightfoot Crab and so many other species of unique creatures, the Galapagos is your BBC Earth documentary come to life. Every island here offers a unique wildlife encounter, so check out our Galapagos Island-by-Island Guide, it will help you hone in on the ones you’ll want to visit most.
Given the extra time and funds needed to visit the Galapagos, we rate this as one of the best retirement travel destinations of all.
3. Hop Between Hemispheres in Ciudad Mitad del Mundo
Half-gimmick, half-fascinating place, the Centre of the World (Mitad del Mundo) is a great place to visit on a day-trip from Quito. Only 25km away from the city centre is where you’ll find the Ecuadorian monument that marks the Equator line. The real line is actually a couple of hundred meters away from the monument but, considering it runs through someone’s backyard, this is a much prettier place to snap those iconic ‘hemisphere hopping’ shots. More than the touristy kitsch, however, a trip north of Quito is a fabulous excuse to soak up the countryside landscapes which really are sensational.
4. Shop for Exquisite Pottery in Otavalo
Even if you’re not a shopaholic, we challenge you to head to the northern mountain town of Otavalo on a Saturday and not declare these exceptional artisan markets reason enough to visit Ecuador. These are some of the most prized craft markets in the entire continent, attracting indigenous sellers (and buyers) from all adjoining Andean valleys in droves. Combined, it makes this one of the most visually spectacular cultural experiences in the entire country. Here, you’ll find the finest hand-woven, hand-carved and hand-made products of all, in a myriad of colours and textiles and sold by some of the most charming artisans you’ll ever meet. The markets are held every day but it’s only on Saturday that all the stalls are open – and all the tourists visits. Do note that this place can be overwhelming so head in early and pace yourself! Luckily, Otavalo is a bit of a gem in its own right and there are plenty of things to do here if you fancy staying a few nights. Authentic haciendas offer stunning rural escapes, with a multitude of hiking, horseback riding and waterfall-chasing excursions enticing active explorers to stay an extra day.
5. Ride the Train Crucero
If you’re heading to Ecuador to visit the Galapagos then you will have heard of Guayaquil, the seaside-town that offers direct flights to the islands. If you’re not pressed for time, the Tren Crucero offers a most unique way to get here from Quito: a 4-day luxury train experience through the Ecuadorian highlands, from peak to beach!
One of South America’s most unique railway journeys, the all-inclusive Tren Crucero offers ‘a journey through the Andean clouds’ aboard an exquisitely appointed train, soaking up magnificent scenery along the extraordinary Avenue of Volcanoes and stopping along the way to visit prominent historical sites. A Gold Class ride also includes overnight stays in luxury ranches along the route, which is about as sublime an option as you’ll ever have on a railway trip, anywhere in the world. Ride along deeply-carved canyons and soak up the splendours of the snow-capped Andes for a few days and you too will undoubtedly realise how much more there is to Ecuador than the admittedly amazing Galapagos. Even Conde Nast Traveller called this one of ‘the sweetest’ train rides in the world’!
This 4-day Luxury Train Journey in Ecuador runs in both directions and we can help you plan it to coincide with your Galapagos cruise
6. Have a WILD Adventure in the Amazon…
All that talk of snow-capped volcanoes and high-altitude may entice to make a detour to that one tropical corner of Ecuador you’ll likely not want to miss, the Amazon Rainforest! Ecuador was one of the first countries to open up its Amazonian doors to tourism and, as such, offers a great array of experiences, both in terms of eco-lodge stays (like the beautiful Sascha Lodge with its canopy walking trail) and river cruising (aboard the Manatee Explorer) which is a wonderful experience in high water levels when on-land explorations are somewhat limited.
7. …and Discover its Real Wild Side
Most first-time travellers to South America automatically think of the Amazon Rainforest as just one place, one ecosystem but, in Ecuador, the Amazonian Region encompasses a biosphere cloud forest that is remarkable. Flanking the western side of the Andes and part of a much greater ecosystem that stretches all the way north to Colombia, the Choco of Ecuador is its most biodiverse corner of the country, an ethereal cloud-forest that’s part of the Amazon, home to an astonishing amount of wildlife, luscious tropical wilderness and a very distinct feel. Over 600 species of unique birds live here, alongside 200 distinct mammals (including the pygmy marmoset, the smallest monkey on earth), more than 100 reptiles and countless insects and fish. The Mashpi Reserve, in the Yasuni National Park, is a wild world onto itself. This rather incredible reserve gives the remainder of the Amazon some stiff competition although it’s often overlooked simply because it still remains an anonymous hidden treasure. Our tip? Spend a couple of days at the amazing Mashpi Lodge (one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World) and enjoy an out-of-this-world experience.
8. Soak up the Colonial Splendours of Cuenca
A smaller and quainter version of Quito, Cuenca is a gorgeous stop-over on a road trip through Ecuador. Even more laid-back and walkable than the capital (and a quarter of its population-size), this lovely colonial-town is just as majestic and offers such an enviable standard of living that it’s swiftly becoming the preferred expat hub in the country. With its rich culture and cosmopolitan vibe, a great nightlife scene and plenty of museums within its UNESCO-listed historic quarter, Cuenca offers plenty to keep you busy for a few days. This is also the famed birthplace of the Panama hat so you can visit a factory and get your own cool headdress as souvenir. Read our Guide to Cuenca and you’ll discover that there’s a stunning national park nearby you may just want to visit.
First, though, check out the show-stopping cathedral!
9. Soak up way More than Thermal Springs in Baños
The hot volcanic baths in Baños have always been one of our secret stops on a Quito to Cuenca road-trip. Conveniently located at the half-way mark and boasting some of the most arresting (and easily accessible) mountain gorges of all (the Pastaza) this bustling little town used to be mostly famous for its public volcanic thermal springs (which are soothing but certainly not the most beautiful in South America) and its array of adrenalin-pumping activities, like extreme canyoning, kayaking and bungee jumping. Even if you’re not a consummate thrill-seeker, however, Baños is worth a stop for the Rio Verde Waterfall alone. Head down the wooden walkway, cross the hanging bridge and soak up that glorious view. This is where Baños gained its Instagram-fame.
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Double, double toil and trouble ✨ If you’re ready to visit Ecuador’s Pailon del Diablo (also known as the Devils’ Cauldron) make sure to bring your poncho – you’re going to need it. To see this magical waterfall for yourself, click the link in our bio. . . #TripAdvisor #Waterfall #DevilsCauldron #PailonDelDiablo #Ecuador #BanosEcuador
Due to the popularity of the place, you’d happy to know that a few amazing luxury spas have opened up in recent years. Ask us about an overnight stay at the Luna Volcan Spa, for example, and you’ll see Baños from a much more awe-inspiring perspective.
10. Enjoy a few days of R&R on the Coast
And now we come to the most underrated part of the whole country, truth be told, the gorgeous Ecuadorian coast. Granted, the beaches on the mainland’s coast are no match for the Galapagos but that’s inarguably because few beaches in the world can stand up to that kind of splendour. Nevertheless, there you have it, a long stretch of laid-back beaches and small fishing villages where the sea’s clean, the ceviche delectable and the choice of ‘vibe’, be it ‘modern and fully serviced’ or ‘middle-of-nowhere nature-filled’ are numerous. There’s no better way to cap off a whirlwind tour of Ecuador than to spend a few days lapping up this lesser-known, totally unpretentious beauty.
The Ecuadorian coast may not be as drop-dead-gorgeous as Brazil’s but, in all honesty, the sheer convenience of having them RIGHT THERE is unbeatable. If you only have a couple of days to spare at the end of your tour, it’ll be madness to fly across the continent to include a few days of beach on the Atlantic: if you can stretch it by a whole week then by all means, ask us about options; if not, take a look at Canoa, one of the least-developed beaches in Ecuador.
Ecuador’s Seasons – Best time to visit
Ecuador doesn’t really have spring, summer, autumn and winter seasons – but rather two main seasons – the rainy season and the dry season, although this also varies greatly due to factors such as altitude and proximity to the Equator.
Even during the rainy season, most days are sunny until usually the mid-afternoon.
Here’s a quick climatic overview of the different regions of Ecuador.
In the highlands, days can be hot and sunny year-round, with bitterly cold nights. Rain and hail can occur at any time and quite suddenly. The dry season runs from June until the end of September with the warmer, wetter period from December to March. The wet season is not an advisable time to visit the highlands, especially for Ecuador hiking tours, which is ironic given this is actually the warmest time of year in the mountains. Can’t have it all!
If it is an Ecuadorian volcano that you are out to conquer (here’s looking at you, Cotopaxi) then there really is no best or worst time to climb as the weather can be very unpredictable at any time of the year, and very different on the summit to the slopes.
The Amazon Rainforest
In the Amazon basin, rains fall most months, but August to September and December to March are usually the driest, cut expect it to be warm and humid throughout the year. In the wetter months, some parts of the rainforest may experience periodical flooding, and some roads may be impassable. But in saying that, when the tributaries are swollen – this gives opportunities to explore further in canoes, to regions that are inaccessible in drier times of the year.
On the coast, the wet season (January to May) sees sunny days with short tropical showers everyday – usually only in the afternoon. Even though this is the rainy season – this is in fact the best beach weather and the best time to explore coastal Ecuador. During the dry season (June to December) the weather is cooler and usually overcast and humid.
The Galapagos Islands have a subtropical and dry climate with comfortable temperatures year-round. The warmest months are usually from December to June (high season) and this is the best time to visit. It is generally warmer and sunnier during these months with higher ocean temperatures, up to 24°C, making swimming, snorkelling and diving even more agreeable! The seas also tend to be calmer in these months, making it a better time to cruise around the islands. Wildlife is abundant year round on the Galapagos Islands, but some species are only present at certain times and some activities, such as turtle nesting, are restricted to certain months, so the best time may depend on the wildlife you are hoping to encounter.
Festivals and Fiestas of Ecuador
If it’s the colourful festivals and fiestas of Ecuador that you want to experience then you will have to plan your Ecuador travels accordingly.
- Inti Raymiis the “Festival of the Sun”, held in June every year to celebrate the winter solstice.
- Yamor is a festival that is celebrated in the market town of Otavalo in early September.
- The pagan celebration of Mama Negra is held in Latacunga in November, a festival that dates back to the Spanish conquest.
- Semana Santa is a religious festival that occurs the week before Easter, celebrated with religious parades and Good Friday processions.
- The Day of the Dead festival is held in November, a time for families to commemorate lost ones. It is a custom to drink coloada morada, a traditional Ecuadorian drink made from fruits such as blackberries, blueberries and strawberries – that give the drink its purple colour.
And these are just a few of the festivals that Ecuador has to offer!
Discover Ecuador for yourself from the highlands to the coast, from the Amazon to the Galapagos! Chimu Adventures offers bespoke itineraries to Ecuador or we can help you create a tailor-made multi-country adventure to Latin America.
Click here to contact us.
Author: Laura Pattara
“Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 15 years. She’s tour-guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and has completed a 6-year motorbike trip from Europe to Australia. What ticks her fancy most? Animal encounters in remote wilderness, authentic experiences off the beaten trail and spectacular Autumn colours in Patagonia.”