From white beaches to smoking volcanoes, jungle and giant turtles, Ecuador has it all. Despite its small size (it is only about half as large as Spain and smaller than the US-state Nevada), it has a lot to offer. This country full of contrasts can keep visitors busy for weeks.
Personally, I spent a bit more than three weeks here but I didn’t get to see nearly as much as I would have liked. As I said, Ecuador has it all. And to help you choose which activities to do and which places to visit, so you can easily put together a trip around the country, here are my personal highlights that I recommend to you and that you should not miss:
#1 Swim with sea lions
Most tourists come to Ecuador to visit the Galapagos Islands. And rightfully so. These islands are beautiful and unique and full of amazing experiences. One of them is to swim with sea lions. They can be found almost everywhere on the islands and are not shy at all. In fact, it is not unusual to see those animals hang out on benches by the harbour.
If you want to swim with them, a good place is La Loberia on San Cristobal. This beach is very popular with sea lions and since they are such curious creatures, once you go into the water, they might come closer to see what’s going on. Always try to keep a distance to them, since they are still wild animals, but even with a few meters in between, it makes for an amazing experience.
When we were at the beach on San Cristobal, a family of sea lions came to lay down on some beach towels. Imagine the surprise of the owners when they came back only to see that their spot had been taken over by sea lions!
Another good place, if you want to snorkel with sea lions, is Isabela. During the Tintoreras half-day trip, you have a chance of spotting them in the water.
#2 Hummingbirds and butterflies
Did you know that tiny Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world? With three main zones, the Pacific coast, the Andes and the Amazon, the country is full of different climates and habitats. The cloud forest, located in the mountains, is a good place to see some of the amazing species that can only be found in this country.
We went to a mariposario, a butterfly garden, in Mindo, near Quito. Here, we got to see lots of different butterflies, one more colourful than the other. They also had hummingbird feeders which attracted many of those tiny, colourful birds that kept zipping around, drinking the sugary water.
Mindo can easily be reached on a day trip from Quito but if you want to go even further, you should travel to the Amazon. From Quito, you can easily arrange multi-day packages. There, you will get to see a completely different eco-system full of amazing animals. And while I visited the Amazon in Peru and not in Ecuador, I’ve heard from fellow travellers that if you’re on a budget, Ecuador is cheaper than anywhere else.
#3 Hike the Andes
Now that I’ve mentioned Galapagos and rainforests, it’s time to show you that Ecuador also has a completely different climate zone – the Andes. And here in the mountains, you can find the place that is farthest away from the centre of the earth.
Due to its location next to the equator, the top of Volcano Chimborazo is as close to the sky as you can possibly get. Climbing it is no easy feat, especially if you come from sea level. The mountain is more than 6000 metres high and it’ll take you a few days to get to its top.
If you’re like me and you don’t have the time or the energy, you will find plenty of amazing shorter hikes in the Andes. I hiked on Mount Chimborazo, but only for a day.
We started at about 4800 metres, which, coming from sea level, was high enough that my lips turned purple and I was out of breath before we had even started. But the scenery was beautiful and we got to see lots of vicuñas up there.
Volcan Cotopaxi is another popular hike as is the Quilotoa Loop. We didn’t have the time to do any of them, but other travellers we met loved them.
They are a bit more popular than Mount Chimborazo, though, so we recommend coming to Ecuador’s highest mountain if you’re looking for a place where you can go off the beaten path in South America.
#4 Stroll through Quito’s Old Town
While visiting Ecuador, chances are high that you’ll end up in Quito. The second highest capital in the world has a beautifully restored Old Town. You can stroll around on your own or join a free walking tour to learn more about the city and Ecuador in general. If you happen to be there on a Monday, don’t miss the changing of the guards at 11am in front of the Palacio del Gobierno.
Two more things you shouldn’t miss are La Ronda and Quito’s churches. The former is a Spanish colonial style street where you can drink canelazo (a drink made from sugarcane and one of the foods you should try in Ecuador). As for the churches, Quito has so many that sooner or later, you’ll end up walking into one of them. The most impressive one is Compañia de Jesus. I am not sure if I’ve ever seen that much gold in one place. But the Convento San Francisco is beautiful as well. And in the Basilica del Voto Nacional, you can buy a cold beer in the tiny cafe at its top.
If you want to find out more, here you can read up on things you shouldn’t miss in Quito.
#5 Relax on perfect white beaches
I have already mentioned the Galapagos Islands for their amazing wildlife. But did you know that they also have some of the whitest beaches that I’ve ever seen? Take Puerto Chino on San Cristobal, for example. The beach is white and the sand is as fine as powder. On top of that, it is populated by sea lions so you get to watch wildlife while resting here.
Isabela is another great island if you want to relax on perfect white beaches. The one stretching out from Puerto Vilami to the west is so long that you’re guaranteed to find a spot to yourself where you won’t be bothered by anyone except the occasional marine iguana walking past.
And on Santa Cruz, another island that is easy to reach even without a cruise, you can hike to Tortuga Bay. This beach is another one that looks like it comes straight from a travel brochure. Unfortunately, due to currents, you cannot swim here. But you can keep walking until the next bay and then stretch out on your towel there.
#6 Explore Mindo’s cloud forest
Mindo is one of my favourite destinations in Ecuador. As I already mentioned, I went here on a day trip from Quito. But if you have enough time I highly recommend that you stay for at least a night.
Remember that mariposario I mentioned above, a butterfly garden where we also saw lots of hummingbirds? It was an amazing experience. And Mindo has so much more to offer! If you have ever wanted to go zip lining, this is your chance. It is one of the cheapest places to do so and the scenery, with the cloud forest below, is amazing. And yes, that superman and butterfly poses are safe, even if it feels like you’re going to slip from your harness.
If you want to relax, you should go to Yumbos Chocolate. They do not only have very good chocolate, they also offer seminars where you learn all about the process of producing the black gold. They started by serving us a cup of hot chocolate. And then they opened up a cocoa pod for us. Have you ever sucked the white flesh off the fresh cocoa beans? I love it and it’s something that’s very rare to get.
There is even more to Mindo than chocolate, hummingbirds and ziplines. You could hike to a waterfall, an activity that I couldn’t do because it got too rainy. You can visit a small coffee plantation. Or you could go tubing. I met a girl who was raving about that tubing tour even weeks later. But whatever you do, you should put Mindo on your Ecuador itinerary.
#7 Shop at the Otavalo market
And take lots of photos. I found the Otavalo market amazingly photogenic. Located only about 2 hours away from Quito, this market can easily be reached by public transport. I recommend visiting it on a Saturday, because that’s when it is the most busy, but you can go here at any time. You will always find stalls with the typical local artisan products.
If you go on a Saturday, make sure to also check out the animal market that only takes place once a week. I unfortunately didn’t get a chance to go here but I heard great things about it.
#8 Try the local cuisine
It would be a shame to go to Ecuador and not try some of their most typical dishes. Since the country is divided into several zones, from the coast to the Andes and then to the jungle, you can find a huge variety of foods.
On the coast, many dishes include fresh seafood, from soups to ceviche. In the Andes, you will get to eat a lot of corn and stews that keep you warm in that high altitude. I highly recommend the Locro de Papa. It might not look like much but it is insanely delicious.
Go to the Amazon to try exotic fruits and meats and dishes you have never heard of before.
And whatever you do, make sure to try some street food. From grilled plantains to cevichochos (which you can see in the picture above), I got to eat amazing food.
#9 Hike the Cajas National Park
The Cajas National Park is a great introduction to the Andes. You can easily visit it on a day trip from Cuenca. While not as famous as other regions, like the Cotopaxi, it is less overrun by tourists. Inside the national park, you can find a few very different zones. On our day trip, we started at a low altitude in a scenery that almost reminded me of the Alps. Surrounded by high mountains, we walked through meadows until we reached a lake. Instead of cows, though, we met llamas and alpacas along the way.
Our next stop was in a typical restaurant that served trucha. Trout is the most commonly eaten fish in the Andes and you shouldn’t miss out on trying it.
Finally, we went high up until the trees got smaller and smaller and we had more and more trouble breathing. While hiking at this altitude was exhausting, especially after coming from sea level, it was also very beautiful. We walked along lake sides and came through a very creepy and dense forest.
You can visit the Cajas National Park by public transport, but if you would like to go with a guide to get to know the area better, ask around in Cuenca. There are many tour operators around.
#10 Stroll through Cuenca
While I just mentioned Cuenca, this city is worth a visit even if you don’t plan on going to Cajas National Park. Supposedly one of the most beautiful towns in Ecuador, it is a stop that you shouldn’t miss.
Stroll around the city centre to take in the colonial buildings. Don’t miss out on visiting the Cathedral. And in the evening, try some local cuisine in one of the many restaurants.
Cuenca, by the way, has one of the biggest expat communities in Ecuador. If there’s anything specific that you need (like an iPhone charger or other things from the Western world that are otherwise hard to find), this is the place to look for it.
#11 Visit the equator
I have mentioned the equator before, when I wrote about top things to do in Quito. In a country that is named after the equator, it would be a shame not to visit it. Be prepared. Mitad del Mundo, where the equator is located, is a very weird place.
There are two sites you can visit. The first one is the official site at Mitad del Mundo. Here, you can find a huge monument and lots of expositions that are more or less related to Ecuador. It is a very strange experience but one that you shouldn’t miss. Make sure to climb to the top of the monument. While I didn’t understand the exhibition inside (and it was too full to take a proper look), the view from the top is amazing.
The second place that you should visit is the Museo Intiñan. It claims that the real equator is here, and not next door under the monument. I have no idea what is true, but just to be on the safe side, we had our pictures taken on both lines. When it comes to exhibitions, I much preferred the Museo Intiñan. It feels like they tried to squeeze as much information about Ecuador into the museum as possible, but in combination with a guided tour, it was very entertaining. I also loved the physics experiments they did with us at the end. Good luck with the egg!
#12 Climb volcanoes on Galapagos
To be honest, I didn’t know much about Galapagos before I went there. I knew it was home to amazing wildlife, including giant turtles, and that it housed a unique ecosystem. But I had no idea what the islands themselves looked like. Turns out that they are mostly dry, almost desert-like, and home to lots of volcanoes.
On Isabela, you can climb the Sierra Negra volcano and see the largest volcanic caldera on Galapagos. We were told it was the second largest one in the world but after a quick google search, I am not so sure about that anymore. But even if there are bigger volcanoes out there, the Sierra Negra one is impressive in its size. Plus, the hike there takes you through a small forest with beautiful scenery and you have the chance of seeing some wildlife along the way.
#13 Eat chocolate
Like many other South American countries, Ecuador is home to chocolate. While these days, most of the chocolate is grown in Africa and Asia, the black gold originated in Latin America. That’s why you can still find many artisan chocolate shops and museums dedicated to chocolate here. If you just want to get a quick overview, you can go to the chocolate museums at the equator (both sites have a section about chocolate). If you want to dive deeper, which I highly recommend, you should go to Mindo. Here, you can visit a chocolate museum, learn about the process of making chocolate and then, of course, end the visit with a tasting.
Don’t be fooled. The inside of a cocoa pod doesn’t look the most appetizing but that white flesh is absolutely delicious.
#14 Visit Guayaquil
For many travellers going to Galapagos, Guayaquil is a mandatory stop over. All flights to the islands either originate here or at least touch down here (in case you’re flying from Quito). But Guayaquil is a place that is worth visiting even if you aren’t planning on going to Galapagos. You can hike up to Santa Ana from where you can enjoy the view of the city. You can stroll along the Malecon 2000, searching for giant iguanas. Or you can take a taxi out to Santay Island and walk along the mangroves.
Find out the best things to do in Guayaquil here.
#15 Visit the carnival
Ecuador is not the first country that comes to my mind when thinking about carnival. But we happened to be in Quito, by chance, when carnival came around and it was a lot more fun than I had anticipated. The streets were full of people celebrating. We saw a parade with dancers dressed up in colourful costumes. I wish we’d had more time to watch but it was Monday and we didn’t want to miss the changing of the guards at the palace.
Carnival is also the season of random people spraying a weird kind of foam at strangers, so watch out when you walk the streets. Or buy one of the spray bottles yourself and join into the fun.
There you have it, the best things to do in Ecuador. Of course, there are many more places worth visiting. I never got the chance to visit the Amazon, so I didn’t mention it on this list, but if you have the time, you should try to go there.
Also, check out our articles about food you shouldn’t miss in Ecuador, our budget guide to Galapagos and my interview with Jaime from Cuenca.
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