Ecuador has tremendous bio-diversity (including some of the best bird watching in the world in places like Mindo), plenty of sometimes very active volcanoes, dramatic Andean peaks, a long stretch of coastline, national parks, a vibrant capital city, the Galapagos Islands, and much more. This helps explain why we drove 9,119 miles (14,675 km) and spent nearly 10 months exploring a country the size of the US state of Oregon to produce more than 40 posts about travel in Ecuador. Start your own Ecuador trip planning with the travel advice and hand-picked destination highlights in our Ecuador Travel Guide.
On Your Ecuador Itinerary
The Colonial heart of the capital city of Quito is a UNESCO World Heritage site full of arresting architecture and history. The city also offers great museums and other attractions, good hotels in a range of price points, and a growing list of notable places to eat and drink.
No trip to Ecuador would be complete without a visit to Mitad del Mundo just outside of Quito. Yes, it’s a bit cheesy, and, yes, the actual “middle of the earth” equator point is located a mile or two away. However, there is something fun about stuff you can only do on (or at least near) the equator like straddling the line between two hemispheres and balancing an egg on its end.
At the time of writing, Ecuador had 11 national parks and all of them were free to enter except for Galapagos National Park. Cotopaxi National Park is one of the most accessible and dramatic national parks in the whole country offering a very active namesake volcano, hiking and camping opportunities, wild horses, and two great lodging options.
Ecuador is home to one of the most iconic travel destinations in the world: the Galapagos Islands. We’ve visited the Galapagos three times for a total of nearly six weeks of exploration in the archipelago. We poured all of that travel know-how into a complete 19-part Galapagos Islands Travel Guide series of posts which covers everything from key rules and regulations, unexpected things to pack, answers to 5 top Galapagos travel questions (including when to go, picking a boat, and more), how to take the best photos in the Galapagos, plus detailed destination guides to all of the major sites and everything you need to know about SCUBA diving in the Galapagos.
Ecuador is also blessed with different ways to explore the Amazon Basin (more on that below).
If you’ve got even more time to travel in Ecuador, also consider:
The volcano views and thermal soaks in Baños
The unsung culture in Riobamba
The riverside charms of Guayaquil (including one of the best sandwiches in the country)
The groundbreaking history and nearby nature in Loja
The remarkably straight and tall roses grown in Ecuador (the reason might surprise you)
The most luxurious hotel on mainland Ecuador is Casa Gangotena in the Colonial heart of Quito where history has been preserved and service has been perfected.
For luxury in a vast protected cloud forest, head for Mashpi Lodge for style and pampering along with your soft and hard adventures in the jungle.
The most luxurious hacienda hotel in Ecuador is Hacienda Zuleta where history and traditions dating back to the 16th century meet gourmet food, lovingly renovated rooms and facilities, an Andean condor rehab program, and a stable full of specially bred horses.
Luxury train travel in Latin America is hard to find, but Ecuador’s Tren Crucero fits the bill with plush cars, great service, culture-filled excursions, and dramatic scenery rolling slowly by.
Luxury travelers can find what they’re looking for in the Amazon Basin at pampering places like La Selva Lodge.
The Galapagos Islands are home to some of the most luxurious hotels in Ecuador, including the chic, modern, surprisingly eco, and very, very luxurious Pikaia Lodge.
Adventure Travel in Ecuador
Travelers who are up for a muddy and steep half day hike to the base of the El Altar Volcano in Sangay National Park are rewarded with a comfortable high-altitude refugio and dramatic páramo landscape.
Experienced SCUBA divers can explore the Galapagos Islands a different way on one of a handful of the liveaboard dive boats that are permitted to visit very distant islands. Dive-centric itineraries let divers experience the cold and swift currents around those islands and SCUBA dive with the sharks, rays, and other pelagics that those waters attract (read our story about SCUBA diving in the Galapagos Islands for Luxe Beat magazine in pdf form).
For more watery adventure, check out Cascada San Rafael which is the highest waterfall in Ecuador.
The Andean condors is the national bird of Ecuador and we saw plenty of them in the country. However, in Antisana National Park we saw condors in high concentrations and we even saw a few on the ground feeding.
Travelers looking for a more affordable, less crowded way to experience the wildlife, nature, and culture of the Amazon Basin should head to the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve where we saw many species (some for the very first time) and also spent surprisingly meaningful time with members of local communities who live inside the reserve.
Take full advantage of the Napo River in the Amazon Basin by exploring the area on an Amazon cruise as your floating Amazon adventurebase camp. And don’t miss our post about surprising Amazon myths to get the travel truth about everything from weather to critters.
High-altitude nature lovers will enjoy the snow-capped peaks and herds of wild vicuña in Chimborazo Wildlife Reserve. The watery world of Cajas National Park and the extreme páramo landscapes and unique hobbity trees of the El Angel Ecological Reserve are like nothing else in the country. And you can even see the largest collection of petrified trees in South America in the Puyango Petrified Forest.
For a different kind of adventure, get onboard for the train journey through the Devil’s Nose, one of the most complicated railway lines ever constructed. Or hike into the Pululahua Crater, one of only two inhabited volcanic craters in the world.
Eating & Drinking in Ecuador
Many readers will be surprised to know that there is a Relais & Chateaux restaurant in Quito. It’s called Zazu, and it’s just one of many diverse and deserving places to eat and drink in Quito including La Gloria where a gourmet version of cuy (guinea pig) can be found.
Good chefs producing good food can also be found in rural areas of the country, like the surprisingly sophisticated restaurant in the town of Saraguro that’s run by a member of the local community who brought his skills back home after years of cooking in Europe.
Cultural Travel in Ecuador
Ecuador’s villages, towns, and cities offer many local markets. The market in the town of Otavalo is the most famous market in Ecuador, but we were disappointed to find that market filled with cheap tourist junk, lots of tourists, and too few locals. In other words, not much culture. The weekly Guamote Market, on the other hand, was full-on legit with local men, women, and families coming together to buy and sell necessities including traditional hats, cuy (guinea pigs), and more.
To get a sense of life in some of Ecuador’s many Andean communities, tackle the Quilotoa loop. Whether you drive it or hike it, you’ll enjoy Andean scenery (including the impressive Quilotoa volcanic crater lake) and you may even stumble upon a village wedding, like we did.
Ecuador is home to many Colonial era haciendas that have been turned into hotels. Book a room at one of our favorite hacienda hotels for great accommodation and a great sense of Colonial history and culture in Ecuador.
One of the best community tourism operations we’ve ever seen is in the Napo River Amazon Basin region of Ecuador where members of the Kichwa Añangu community run the Napo Wildlife Center Ecolodge.
So-called Panama hats are actually from Ecuador and in the town of Montecristi we watched some of the most skilled hat makers i the country keeping their world-famous weaving traditions alive.
Ecuador has a few archaeological sites, but the Ingapirca archaeological site is the only one where you can see remnants of two different cultures.
Handicrafts, including a disappearing textile tradition, jewelry making and more, can be seen (and purchased) in a handful of towns that make up a handicrafts circuit around the city of Cuenca.
Annual cultural events to enjoy include the white-knuckle Caceria del Zorro horse race in the city of Ibarra, the La Diablada Festival with streets full of costumed dancers in Pillaro, and Ecuador’s own unique New Year’s Eve traditions.