Ecuador may be one of the smallest South American countries, but it packs a punch when it comes to things to see and do. Bordered by Peru, Colombia, and the Pacific Ocean, Ecuador is one of the most biologically diverse regions on the planet. In this place that enjoys perpetual springtime, you can discover everything from the Amazon rainforest to the Galapagos Islands and the soaring Andes Mountains. Adventure after adventure awaits in Ecuador, which means once you go, you’re likely to find yourself returning again and again. Start by putting at least a few of these top things to do on your must-experience list.
YOU'RE ALL SET!
Look out for our newsletters in your inbox soon.
Visit the Amazon
The Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest covers the eastern part of the country and is exceptionally rich in biodiversity when it comes to both flora and fauna. A number of parks and reserves have been established to protect the ecosystem, each offering their own unique attractions. Yasuní National Park is home to more than 500 bird species and the largest diversity of tree species of any region in the world. The Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve hosts over 60 percent of the mammal species and more than 50 percent of the amphibian species in the Ecuadorian Amazon basin.
Sani Lodge, which sits between Yasuni and Cuyabeno, provides an ideal base for exploring the Amazon. It’s run by the local Kichwa-speaking community and features 10 thatched cabanas for overnights, while knowledgeable Kichwa guides lead wildlife watching excursions and trips to the tribal community center where visitors can immerse themselves in tribal life and even sample traditional foods.
Play in the Mindo Cloud Forest
Ecuador’s Cloud Forest in Mindo is just a two-and-a-half hour’s drive from Quito and hosts a wide array of wildlife as well as multiple opportunities for adventurous excursions. You can take a cable car across the forested valley and hike to some half-dozen waterfalls, and even enjoy a refreshing dip in the pools that lie underneath. Afterwards, whiz across one of the zip lines or ride the thrilling Tarzan swing. In the town of Mindo, the butterfly and hummingbird farm is a must visit.
Walk the Equator
If you want to walk the line of the equator, don’t go to the massive Equatorial monument north of Quito, which is where most tour companies will send you. It’s not on the equator at all — the real equator is a couple of football fields away at the Intinan museum. While some call it a tourist trap, it’s well-worth a visit. Come here, and you can stand on the actual “line,” painted on the “real equator,” and do all kinds of mind-bending equator things like walking the line with your eyes closed and balancing an egg on the head of a nail. Plus, you can even see a genuine shrunken head and learn the hows and whys behind them.
See Cuicocha Lake
Just north of Quito is picturesque Cuicocha Lake, a two-mile wide crater lake nestled in the caldera of the Cotacachi Volcano. Visitors can take a boat ride right in the caldera or hike the rim, just be aware that the terrain is somewhat challenging and the high elevation, at 10,000 feet, can make breathing a bit difficult too.
Soak in the Hot Springs at Banos de Agua Santa
The town of Banos de Agua Santa sits adjacent to the Tungurahua volcano and a jungle, a few hours south of Quito. It not only enjoys a spectacular backdrop, but it sits at the heart of some of the nation’s top adventure sports opportunities and boasts multiple natural hot springs and thermal pools. Here you can enjoy climbing waterfalls, hiking volcanoes, whitewater rafting and more, followed by a soothing soak in the mineral-rich waters that are heated by the volcano’s springs at popular places like Piscina El Salado or La Piscina de La Virgen.
Visit the Galapagos
The Galapagos Islands, situated 600 miles off mainland Ecuador, is a volcanic archipelago that’s considered one of the best wildlife destinations in the world. A lack of predators allow wildlife to thrive, with many of the animals never having learned to fear humans and appear practically tame. Visitors can snorkel right alongside the marine iguana or walk quietly among the resident sea lions and the Galapagos giant tortoise that can live to be 150 years old or more. Other fascinating species include the Galapagos penguins, blue-footed boobies and the flightless cormorants.
This small coastal town along the southern coast is renowned for its unique combination of friendly people, idyllic unspoiled sands, world-class surfing, and island and mountain natural reserves. It’s considered a surfing hotspot and is the only place in the country where it isn’t illegal to smoke marijuana. In fact, here, locals voice approval to same-sex couples who show public affection, something that would be frowned upon just about anywhere else in Ecuador. With its liberal attitude, inexpensive accommodations and great, cheap eats, many people find it hard to leave.
Ecuador’s capital is a beautiful city in a valley framed by volcanic peaks. Sitting at over 9,000 feet above sea level, it’s also one of the highest capital cities in the world. Here you can explore the old town, one of the best preserved and protected colonial centers on the continent with countless museums, cathedrals, parks and churches that are a true work of art in themselves. Be sure to watch the changing the guards at Plaza Grande and stroll Calle la Ronda, one of the oldest and most artsy streets in all of Quito.
Cuenca is characterized by its stunning colonial architecture, with the historic Centre of Santa Ana de los Ríos de Cuenca as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Much of the city’s architecture dates back to the 18th century, and its cathedral is considered one of the most impressive buildings in the nation.
Explore Otavalo Market
Otavalo Market is one of the most accessible and friendliest local markets in all of South America. A fantastic place to wander through, the Andean town attracts locals on Sundays from nearly every village in the area to trade goods like fruits and veggies, as well as farm animals like llamas and goats. There’s also a tourist market at its center that offers shopping every day of the week.
Get a Private Tour Guide
While you could drive around yourself or take public transportation, having your own personal local tour guide can make a significant difference in your overall experience. It’s surprisingly inexpensive for what you get, and you’ll have a knowledgeable expert right at your fingertips to answer questions along the way. Victor Alban, based in Quito, is the most highly recommended on TripAdvisor, and can even put together a customized excursion based on what you’re looking for, such as a tour of the capital city, a visit to the Mindo Cloud Forest, Pululahua Crater, Otavalo Market and much more.