Ecuador may be a relatively small country, but it holds loads of amazing experiences for travelers to enjoy. There are so many awesome things to do in Ecuador to fill weeks or even months of travel! The vast diversity of landscapes lends to so many different points of interest to seek out.
The glacier-capped Andes loom over the country.
A lush jungle environment thrives in both the Amazon basin and Ecuador’s cloud forests.
Then toss in the many charming colonial cities dotting the natural landscapes.
And let’s not forget about the incredible underwater world of the Galapagos!
It’s this amazing diversity that supports the long-held tourism slogan “All you need is Ecuador.” Each different environment holds so many intriguing things to do in Ecuador. Yet with this abundance of recreation and culture to explore, it can be difficult to narrow down exactly what to do in Ecuador.
So we’ve now spent a total of six months traveling across the country to seek the very best places to visit in Ecuador. We’ve written this article to offer travel ideas and suggestions for those who may be considering a trip to Ecuador.
The best things to do in Ecuador will vary to each person, depending on interests. Some may have a penchant for cultural exploration. Whereas others may be more interested in Ecuador’s nature. Some may favor relaxing at Ecuador’s beaches or luxury spas. Others may prefer climbing a volcano or mountain biking down it!
There’s something for everyone! We wrote this roundup of what to do in Ecuador to highlight the best the county has to offer across each of these spectrums. It’s our hope that this list of the best places to visit will provide travel inspiration for a trip to Ecuador.
20 Best Things to Do in Ecuador
This guide focuses on the things to do that make Ecuador special. You’ll also see exactly where to go in Ecuador to find the country’s best attractions.
Here is an interactive map that pinpoints each of the best places to travel in mainland Ecuador mentioned in this guide.
1) Seek Wildlife Encounters in the Galapagos Islands
Lying off Ecuador’s coast, the Galapagos Islands are like nowhere else on earth. This island chain has been untouched for centuries. Visitors will now find it teeming with unique wildlife and endemic species, not found anywhere else. Nature abounds both above and below the ocean’s surface throughout the Galapagos!
A visit to Galapagos National Park can be like wandering through a living museum. Visitors regularly encounter sea lions and iguanas by simply walking around the port or beaches. But that’s not all. Some common Galapagos wildlife encounters include:
- Gazing upon wild flamingos,
- Swimming with sea lions,
- Watching wild penguins frolicking in a bay,
- Stumbling across both marine iguanas & land iguanas,
- Snorkeling with sharks, including hammerheads,
- Gliding past dozens of sea turtles,
- Visiting wild Galapagos tortoises,
- Diving with giant manta rays,
- Coming face-to-face with blue-footed boobies,
- Spotting Galapagos hawks, finches, frigate birds, among other endemic bird species,
- and possibly even having a rare encounter with a whale shark!
They’re all here in the Galapagos.
The Galapagos Islands are undoubtedly one of the best places to visit in Ecuador. And the famed islands are now more accessible for travelers than ever. Even those who are traveling on a budget can make a Galapagos trip a reality.
Four of the Galapagos Islands boast affordable hotels. So visitors can plan out their own daily adventures around these inhabited islands. Many of the aforementioned wildlife encounters are easily possible to do for free. Yet those who splurge for day tours or cruise packages can reach further-flung locations where more wildlife awaits.
For in-depth information on planning a Galapagos adventure, be sure to read our detailed travel guide to the islands. It reveals
- where to find the Galapagos’s most famous wildlife residents (for free!),
- where to find seafood dinners for less than $5 and hotels for $35,
- how to visit the islands independently,
- how to organize a cheap liveaboard Galapagos cruise, and
- how much a Galapagos trip can cost.
Open in a separate tab to read later: How to Travel the Galapagos on a Budget.
2) Climb a Volcano in Ecuador
There are dozens of volcanos throughout the country. And those who are fit for the challenge should definitely put summitting a volcano on their list of things to do in Ecuador.
Some of Ecuador’s volcanos are fairly accessible for a day hike, while others require technical climbing skills. The following are some of Ecuador’s most notable volcanos to consider a trek up.
Volcán Chimborazo: Summiting Ecuador’s Highest Point
Rising 6,263 meters (nearly 4 miles high), Volcán Chimborazo isn’t just the tallest mountain in Ecuador. This inactive stratovolcano is the furthest point on Earth’s surface from the center of Earth. When measuring the height from the earth’s center, rather than sea level, Chimborazo clocks in even higher than Everest.
This happens because there is something known as the equatorial bulge. The earth is actually a bit wider around its midsection, caused by Earth’s rotation. Because of this, Volcan Chimborazo to be the closest point on planet earth to outer space.
Summiting Chimborazo is a challenging high-altitude ascent requiring technical ice-climbing gear. Adventurers will also need at least two days to complete the overnight summit. The town of Riobamba acts as the staging ground for this climb. It’s here that adventure operators are able to assist and guide climbers.
For a less extreme challenge on Chimborazo, it’s also possible to take a short day hike towards the summit. Whether hiking independently or as part of a tour, visitors can ascend to a small pond at an elevation of 5,100 meters high (16,732 feet). For more info about hiking Volcan Chimborazo, read the Chimborazo section of our Riobamba Travel Guide.
Hiking Volcán Sierra Negra: Most Active Volcano in the Galapagos
Volcanos aren’t only limited to the Andes of Ecuador. The Sierra Negra Volcano on Isabela Island is the most active volcano in the island chain. And this volcano can make for a convenient day hike in the Galapagos! Well, that is, when this volcano is not erupting. The volcano is quite active, having last erupted in the summer of 2018.
Sierra Negra is actually one of the widest active volcanos on earth! The caldera stretches out 9.3 kilometers wide at one point, making it the largest of all Galapagos volcanos. It’s so wide that it’s virtually impossible to photograph the entire volcano.
This 16 km (10-mile) hike up and around a portion of Sierra Negra’s rim is a pretty inspiring thing to do in Ecuador! Trekking across the black volcanic rock feels like walking on another planet. The otherworldly views that hikers are rewarded with from the top make the sweat-inducing trek totally worth it.
Hiking Volcan Sierra Negra can be included as part of multi-day Galapagos tours. Yet those traveling the islands independently can find half-day hiking tours of Sierra Negra in the town of Puerto Villamil. It’s $35 per person, including a guide and transportation to the trailhead.
Trek to the Glaciers of the Cotopaxi Volcano
This glacier-capped Volcán Cotopaxi is one of the tallest active volcanoes in the world! It’s also the 2nd highest point in Ecuador, with a summit is 5,897 meters high. That’s an elevation of about 3.6 miles in altitude!
To reach the summit of Cotopaxi, it takes a grueling overnight ascent. Sometimes it’s even off-limits due to heightened volcanic activity.
But a day trek to Cotopaxi’s base camp is a more accessible consideration. Hikers can reach an elevation of 4,864 meters, which is around the snowline and where the glaciers begin. Such Cotopaxi day trips can be organized from the town of Latacunga or Quito. For more info on reaching this volcano from Quito, check out the Cotopaxi section of our Quito Travel Guide.
3) Explore Ecuador’s UNESCO-listed Historic Centers: Quito & Cuenca
Ecuador has two historic centers recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites for their long-standing cultural value. Roaming around the ornate buildings of the centuries-old streets can make visitors feel like they’ve gone back to a different era.
Explore Quito’s Historic Center
Quito is said to have the best-preserved, least altered historic center in all of Latin America. It’s this recognition that led Quito to become one of the first cities in the world to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, back in 1978. (Read full UNESCO description: here.)
The historic center of Quito delivers not only cultural significance, but also lots of charm. Despite earthquakes and modernization, the baroque buildings in Quito’s Old Town remain largely intact. It’s enchanting to wander through bustling South American capital amongst the beautiful architecture that’s remained here for nearly a half-millennium!
Grand plazas open up to historic churches while quaint cafes line the streets to museums that further detail the history of the city. Quito’s historic center is a fascinating place to wander around and deserves being firmly placed on any Ecuador itinerary. Read more about Quito’s Old Town in our 20 Best Things to Quito Travel Guide.
Explore the Historic Center of Cuenca
Cuenca’s charming colonial streets exude European flair. Its nickname as the “Athens of Ecuador” is not just a reflection of Cuenca’s architecture, cathedrals, and ruins. It’s also a reference to Cuenca being a long-held hub of culture, art, and artisanry.
It’s this history and traditions that lend to Cuenca’s UNESCO designated status. Cuenca’s historic center is recognized for its centuries-old colonial architecture. The city planning outlined for Cuenca has been respected and followed for more than 400 years!
Read further about all there is to do in Cuenca’s historic center and beyond within our full travel guide about the 20 Best Things to do in Cuenca.
4) Float through the Amazon Jungle
Eastern Ecuador covers a wide swath of the Amazon Rainforest and holds many tributaries to the Amazon River. It takes some effort to reach this remote jungle environment. Yet those who do so are rewarded with awesome Amazonian experiences.
Within the Ecuadorian Amazon, it’s possible to go fishing for piranhas, spot pink river dolphins, meet with a local shaman, and search for anacondas.
In addition to common reptilian life throughout the jungle, visitors can also find monkeys, tapirs, or even an elusive jaguar. This is all set amongst the lush rainforest setting with its enormous tree canopies. The Ecuadorian Amazon is also home to remote native tribes, which makes for interesting visits and cultural exchange.
It’s possible to explore Ecuador’s Amazon on your own. Yet the Amazon can be best approached as part of a tour and a lodge stay experience. Reserva de Cuyabeno is one of the best areas to see wildlife.
Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve has an assortment of jungle lodges for all budgets. Such tours of Cuyabeno depart from Lago Agrio, accessible from Quito by bus or flight. Expect to pay about $100 per day for such tours, inclusive of meals and accommodation. For example, check out this highly-rated 4-Day Stay at the Cuyabeno Dolphin Lodge or this 5-Day Cuyabeno Eco-Lodge Adventure.
A DIY trip to Yasuni National Park can be attempted by intrepid travelers. But doing so requires time, a sense of adventure, and comfortability with remote independent travel. Yasuni National Park is located along the Napo River, in a remote location way out towards the Peruvian border.
It can take a few days of busing and boat rides to reach the isolated village of Nuevo Rocafuerte. From there, guides are available to delve further into the National Park.
You can read more about our Amazon journey to Yasuni National Park and beyond here: An Adventure Down the Napo River. Yet ultimately we suggest a Cuyabeno lodge stay as a much more complete experience in the Amazon.
5) Take a Scenic Rail Journey through the Andes
Ecuador must have some of the most beautiful train trips in the world. There are currently six different scenic train journeys to embark on throughout the country. To be clear, these rail trips are not used for transportation, but rather as a day excursions that are a journey unto themselves.
These roundtrip routes venture to an interesting destination, then return back. There is some stunning scenery all along these routes. Stunning scenery lines the rails as the trains chug along through the Valley of Volcanos, past farmland, or down into canyons.
And these rail trips are all very affordable too, ranging from $25-$33. We suggest the Devil’s Nose and the Ice Train as the best of Ecuador’s train rides.
Ride the Devil’s Nose: The Most Difficult Railway Ever Built
The most famous of Ecuador’s train routes is the Nariz del Diablo, or Devil’s Nose. It has been dubbed the “most difficult railway ever built!”
This was a critical section of Ecuador’s railway constructed over a hundred years ago to connect the coast with Quito. Yet the engineering challenge faced was to somehow lay tracks up a vertical cliff measuring 765-meter (2,500-foot) high.
Thousands of laborers died during the rail line’s construction. Hence, the pointy mountain taunting building efforts became known as the Devil’s Nose. The engineering feat was finally pulled off by developing a series of switchbacks. The train actually overshoots the tracks, then reverses to zigzag up the side of the mountain cliff.
This was once a rugged rail journey through Ecuador in which passengers were permitted to sit atop the train cars until an unfortunate head-loss incident occurred (yikes!). So now passengers are only permitted inside the train.
It’s a fascinating look into Ecuador’s rail history, rolling across this engineering feat. But this scenic trip through the Andes is also an exhilarating ride. Grab a seat on the right side of the train to look out the window, straight down that sheer cliff.
The Devil’s Nose train journey can be accessed from the town of Alausi and costs $33 for the half-day trip. For more information, schedule, and booking, see TrenEcuador.
Ride the Ice Train around Chimborazo to Meet a Living Legend
The Tren de Hielo I, or the Ice Train, is another fascinating rail journey to embark on in Ecuador. Winding through the Ecuadorian Andes, the train’s windows offer sweeping views of Volcán Chimborazo. On a clear day, passengers are able to gaze upon Ecuador’s highest mountain throughout the ride.
But the highlight of the Tren de Hielo is the stop in Urbina. It’s Ecuador’s highest train station, at 3,609 meters in altitude. Yet the real treasure here isn’t its high elevation. It’s for the rare opportunity to meet Baltazar Ushca.
The 75-year-old (in 2019) man is known as the last ice merchant. For the past 60 years, he’s been climbing up to the “ice mine” on Chimborazo every week to harvest glacier ice that he then sells to the markets in Riobamba.
Ushca is the last person known in Ecuador to continue practicing this lost trade of ice harvesting. It’s so fascinating that global documentaries have been made about him. So Ushca has now garnered local celebrity status. And he still makes the rigorous trek up the side of Chimborazo.
The Ice Train is priced at $25 for the day trip, plus lunch at your own expense. For more about this local legend and other stops on the Ice Train route, browse the Ice Train section of our Riobamba Travel Guide.
Ecuador’s Other Scenic Rail Trips
In addition to the Devil’s Nose and the Ice Train, there are currently four more rail excursions to take in Ecuador.
- Tren de la Libertad: Journey from Ibarra through many tunnels to reach Salinas. Here, Afro-Ecuadorian culture is explored.
- Tren de Hielo 2: The bus-like train travels from Ambato to Urbina to meet Baltazar Uscha. There’s also stops at farming communities for shopping and lunch.
- Tren de los Volcanos: This train from Quito heads to the base of the Cotopaxi Volcano for a short walk. Many other volcanos are passed during the scenic route.
- Tren de la Dulzura: This train from the outskirts of Guayaquil focuses on the farming of cocoa and sugarcane. After reaching Naranjito, there’s an optional trek to in the cloud forest to a waterfall.
6) Admire Ecuador’s Best Waterfalls
Given the many rivers flowing from the Andes, hundreds of gorgeous waterfalls rush throughout Ecuador. Take the impressive Giron waterfall, for example, pictured below. Yet the following suggests some of Ecuador’s best and most notable waterfalls to seek out during a trip.
See San Rafael Waterfall: Highest in Ecuador
Dropping a staggering 150-meters (492 feet), San Rafael Falls is recognized as the highest waterfall in Ecuador. The thunderous roar of the falls can be heard while approaching down the 1.5-kilometer trails.
The San Rafael Waterfall is free to enter and is located on the route between Quito and the Amazon. The out-of-the-way location does take some effort to reach. It’s best approached from the town of Baeza. From there, a bus heading towards Lago Agrio can drop passengers off near the trailhead to the waterfall.
Visit Palion del Diablo Waterfall: Among Ecuador’s Most Popular and Beautiful
Translated as the Devil’s Cauldron, Palion del Diablo is likely the most popular waterfall to visit in Ecuador and arguably the most scenic!
The short trail to the waterfall includes lots of stairs and fun suspension bridges to traverse over. This adds to the adventure through a narrow canyon leading to the waterfall’s viewpoint. Yet soon enough, the 80-meter waterfall comes into view, along with the misty spray it that regularly soaks visitors.
This waterfall is easily accessed from Baños by bus, taxi, or cycling, and imposes a modest $2 entry fee.
Visit Nambillo Waterfall Sanctuary
This waterfall sanctuary in the Mindo Cloud Forest holds one of the greatest concentration of waterfalls in Ecuador. There are at least fifteen different waterfalls found throughout the Nambillo Waterfall Sanctuary! The largest waterfall is the 50-meter (164 foot) Cascada Reina (Queen Waterfall).
Continuing onward, hikers will encounter a series of a half-dozen more falls, each within a 10-minute walk of each other. To cool off after all that hiking, wear a bathing suit to soak in the natural pools that form below the falls. Entrance to the Nambillo Waterfall Sanctuary is $5, which includes a thrilling ride on a tarabita cableway to access the hiking trails. More information can be found in the Nambillo section of our Mindo Travel Guide.
7) Discover Ecuador’s Ancient Inca Ruins
Ecuador holds many Inca ruins scattered across the country. One such archeological site can be found from right within the colonial city of Cuenca. The Pumapungo ruins in Cuenca are believed to be a part of the ancient city of Tomebamba that was first inhabited by the Cañari people before the Incas overtook it for use as a fort. It’s easily accessed in town and is free to enter.
Part of the ancient Inca Trail (a popular pursuit in Peru to Machu Picchu) also runs through Ecuador. A 40-kilometer section of the UNESCO-listed Camino de Inca (Inca Trail) can be traversed from Alchupallas to Ingapirca. Ancient bridges, crumbling structures, and former Incan towns are passed along the way across this centuries-old trail through the Andes. Experienced trekkers with gear and navigation can give it a go on their own. But Ecuador’s Inca Trail is best approached as a guided trek, like this one.
Ecuador’s Inca Trail ultimately leads to the ruins of Ingapirca, which can also be accessed by roadway. Ingapirca is the best-preserved and largest Inca ruin site in Ecuador. The stone terraces, walkways, and buildings at Ingapirca are punctuated by the impressive Sun Temple. Slits in the temple align perfectly with the sun on solstice days.
Entrance to the Ingapirca is just $2 and the ruin site is located about a 2-hour drive from Cuenca, accessible by public bus or small-group tour. Regardless of how you arrive at Ingapirca, a short guided tour of the ruins is included upon a visit. Afterward, visitors can walk down a portion of an Inca trail and visit the onsite museum. For more info on getting to these ruins, see the Ingapirca section of our Cuenca Travel Guide.
8) Relax among Ecuador’s Best Beaches
Ecuador has some world-class beaches, along its Pacific coastline and even throughout the Galapagos Islands. Sunbathers and surfers can both have fun in the sun across Ecuador’s many picturesque playas.
From natural beaches, to resort beaches, to party beaches and laidback surf towns, there’s a beach for everyone in Ecuador.
Laidback Surf Beaches in Ecuador
Montañita is a fun-loving surfing town full of reggae vibes. It’s a party spot too and a popular stopover on Ecuador’s backpacking trail. Canoa is another chilled-out town along the coast with great surf. It also boasts one of the longest beaches in Ecuador and is scenically backed by looming cliffs.
Resort Beach Living in Ecuador
Salinas is Ecuador’s premier beach resort town. This beachside city often receives comparisons to Miami. It boasts five-star hotels, various tourist attractions, and vibrant clubs. Within easy reach of Guayaquil, Salinas can be a great escape from the city or to warm up after an Andes adventure. It’s also a good place to go whale watching!
Best Natural Beaches
The beaches throughout the Galapagos comprise the best natural beaches in Ecuador. There are many of them, all with a different flair. From Playa Mann on Isla Cristobal to Puerto Villamil Beach on Isla Isabela.
Yet it’s Tortuga Bay that made Tripadvisor’s list for Top 10 Beaches in the World, and deservedly so! This scenic stretch of coastline can be found on Isla Santa Cruz in the Galapagos Islands. It’s never very crowded. At least not by humans. Sea lions and iguanas usually outnumber people here. There’s can be decent surf here too!
9) Hike to one of Ecuador’s Spectacular Crater Lakes
Ecuador boasts three massively impressive crater lakes! Each one is a visual spectacle, special in its own merits. The Quilotoa Crater, El Altar, and Laguna Cuicocha should each be considered based upon location and the effort involved to reach.
The Quilotoa Crater and Laguna Cuicocha can be accessed by bus or tour. But trekking around the craters is highly recommended. Meanwhile, El Altar is more remote and can only be reached by hiking in.
Hike Ecuador’s Most Popular Trekking Route: Quilotoa Loop
Quilotoa’s gorgeous three-kilometer wide caldera is a spectacular sight to see. This former volcano collapsed from an eruption, estimated to have occurred about 600 years ago. It now lays filled with water, transformed as a deep crater lake. It’s easily possible to trek down into the Quilotoa crater as a day trip from Quito. To approach Quilotoa Crater this way, read this day trips section to our Quito Travel Guide.
But for a more complete trek around the Quilotoa Crater, consider embarking on the 3-day Quilotoa Loop trek. This 34-kilometer trek is along a well-worn trail that connects farming communities. It’s in these Andean villages where hostels are found, offering comfy places to sleep and homecooked meals to eat. So packs can stay light!
This is Ecuador’s most popular trekking route and one of the most enjoyable multiday treks we’ve completed in South America. If interested, be sure to read our detailed instructions and Guide to Trekking the Quilotoa Loop: The Cheap & Easy Way.
Climb to the Rim of El Altar for High Andes Adventure
El Altar is a collapsed volcano near Riobamba that now contains a beautiful crater lake known as Laguna Amarilla. The El Altar Crater is also part of Sangay National Park. That’s recognized as Ecuador’s only other natural UNESCO World Heritage Site, right alongside the Galapagos Islands.
The trek to El Altar takes 2-3 days to complete the 35-kilometers roundtrip hike. But beware that it is more challenging than the aforementioned Quilotoa Loop. The trek to El Altar is more remote, more grueling, often muddy, more planning is involved, and hikers must pack in all of their food and supplies. Yet the payoff for this extra effort is very rewarding.
Trek around this Gorgeous “Guinea Pig” Lake: Laguna Cuicocha
This stunning slice of nature is the result of yet another exploded volcano, occurring over 3,000 years ago. Although the two islands scenically popping out from the middle of the lake were formed during subsequent eruptions. Those islands are thought to resemble the backs of two guinea pigs. Hence the name of this lake, Cuicocha, which means “guinea pig lake” in the indigenous Kichwa language.
This impressive crater lake is impossibly blue on a clear day. Laguna Cuicocha is accessible as a day excursion from Quito that also includes a visit to the Otavalo markets.
Yet those who visit by day trip may only have enough time to gaze out upon the crater lake. If staying in nearby Otavalo or Cotacachi, it’s possible to reach the crater lake by public bus and taxi. That will provide visitors enough time to trek the entire 14-km perimeter of the crater lake and even take a boat ride around the namesake islands.
10) Go Birdwatching in one of the Best Birding Destinations in the World: Mindo
Ecuador holds so many awesome birdwatching opportunities throughout the country.
In the Galapagos, birders can find blue-footed boobies, endemic Galapagos hawks, finches, frigate birds, and more. In the Andes, some travelers are lucky enough to spot an Andean Condor. In the Amazon, toucans and colorful parrots thrive. Yet there’s another destination that is renown across the world for its vast birding opportunities.
The Mindo Cloud Forest is one of the premier birding destinations on earth!
More than 500 different types of birds have been spotted in Mindo. In fact, Mindo regularly holds the annual world record for the most bird species counted within a 24-hour period. Birders travel to Mindo specifically searching for varieties of toucans, parrots, quetzals, and even umbrellabirds!
Yet one of the most sought-after birds to spot in Mindo is the Andean cock-of-the-rock, also known locally as gallo de la peña. This elusive red bird is known for its early-morning lek. That’s a song-and-dance males perform as a competitive courting ritual to impress the females.
Even for those not into birding, Mindo can be a perfect place for beginners to give it a try. Grab a pair of binoculars and set off on one of the many birding tours that are offered through the area. Yet it’s also possible to go hiking through the cloud forest on your own in an attempt to spot some of Mindo’s avian life. And it takes no effort at all to spot the many hummingbirds buzzing around.
For more info about birding in Mindo, be sure to check out our complete Mindo Travel Guide to the Cloud Forest.
11) Mountain Bike Down the Andes Mountains
Ecuador has some awesome downhill bike rides for adventure-seekers who want to fly down the Andes on two wheels! There are great opportunities to rent bikes in Ecuador or join a cycling day tour through some of the most scenic locations. (1) Mountain biking down Chimborazo, (2) though the Waterfall Route from Baños, and (3) down the Cotapaxi Volcano round out our top three suggestions for biking adventures in Ecuador.
Mountain Biking Down Chimborazo: Ecuador’s Tallest Mountain
Trekking up Chimborazo can be a fun thing to do in Ecuador. Yet we’d argue that an even bigger thrill is to go mountain biking down this famous volcano.
The 40-km route is almost entirely downhill. Little peddling is required. Along the gravity-driven descent down the single-track, riders pass by a scenic canyon, and ancient Inca barracks. Bikers also glide by friendly vicuñas, a relative to llamas and alpacas. It’s an awesome thrill that we recommend as the best of Ecuador’s many downhill mountain biking descents.
The Waterfall Route from Baños to Puyo
Setting off from the town of Baños is a scenic yet harrowing downhill road known as the Ruta de las Cascadas, or Waterfall Route. It plummets down the Andes and into the Amazon.
It’s a thrilling ride and passes by numerous canyon, cliffs, and waterfalls as the landscape transitions from mountains to jungle. There are many stops along the way, with viewpoints, waterfalls, ziplines, and other adventure pursuits. The most notable attraction is the Palion del Diablo waterfall, mentioned earlier in this list of things to do in Ecuador.
The Waterfall Route mountain biking trip can be done independently using bikes rented in Baños ($5-$10). Just be careful, as bikes share the road with cars most of the way down this well-trafficked route. The entire way to Puyo is 61 kilometers, resulting in an all-day affair. Yet it’s possible to go as far as desired before flagging down a bus to carry you back to Baños ($1-$2).
Biking Down Volcán Cotopaxi
Many of the day trips to the Cotopaxi Volcano also include what is yet another thrilling descent on a mountain bike. The ride down the side of Cotopaxi is a jaw-rattling plunge down a gravel road. Amidst the Andean scenery, wild horses are often spotted along the way down.
These mountain biking tours down Cotopaxi are often referred to as “hike & bike” since they include a short hike up to the Cotapaxi refugio before plunging down the volcano. They’re priced around $50-$75 and can be arranged from Quito. Details and tour operators can be found in the Cotopaxi section of our Quito Travel Guide.
12) Shop for One-of-a-Kind Artisan Crafts in Ecuador
Those who enjoy shopping for handmade keepsakes and unique crafts will find an abundance of textiles, clothing, jewelry, carvings, painting, and souvenirs at the many markets all throughout Ecuador.
There are some great artisanal markets in each of Ecuador’s three biggest cities. Quito has its popular Mercado Artesanal la Mariscal. Guayaquil has its own Mercado Artesanal on the southern end of the Malecon 2000. And local handicrafts can be found throughout Cuenca’s Plaza de San Francisco and Mercado de Artesanias Rotary.
Yet shoppers can dive deeper into Ecuador’s communities to uncover thriving weekly markets and other interesting shopping opportunities. The bustling Thursday market in Saquisilí can be a dazzling cultural experience to witness the local trading taking place. Riobamba’s Saturday market is another fascinating look into the local wares. And anyone looking for leather goods should not pass up the shops in Cotacachi and its Sunday market day (pictured above).
Yet it’s the following three notable shopping opportunities that we find to be the best in Ecuador.
Shop at One of the Largest Markets in South America: Otavalo
Otavalo is home to Ecuador’s most famous local market, which is one of the largest and most renown markets in all of South America. The Otavalo market tradition goes back hundreds of years, all the way to pre-Incan times!
And Otavalo’s artisan market is still going strong today. It’s best to go on Wednesdays and Saturdays. That’s when the market expands with hundreds of additional stalls sprawling across dozens of blocks of the Andean city.
Otavalo can be visited as an overnight stay or as a day trip from Quito, as it’s located about two hours away from the capital. It’s accessible by bus or day tours that occur during Otavalo’s market days (Wed & Sat). Additional logistical info can be found in the Otavalo section of our Quito Travel Guide.
Shop for a Panama Hat Sombrero de Paja Toquilla: Ecuador’s Famous Hats
Ecuador, not Panama, is the origin and production center to what is well-known around the world as the “Panama Hat.” There’s an explanation behind this confusing name. It’s because these Ecuadorian hats were being exported to Panama while the Panama Canal was being built in the early 1900s. That’s when US President Roosevelt visited the construction site and was photographed wearing the hat in Panama. The name “Panama Hat” has stuck ever since.
But make no mistake, this is purely an Ecuadorian product and they are known locally as sombreros de paja toquilla. The town of Montecristi lays claim to the birthplace of Panama hats. Today, its streets are lined with shops selling Ecuador’s famous hat. You can make a pilgrimage to the town to buy one at some of the best prices in Ecuador, and the world. But a high quality, tightly woven hat will still cost $100 and upwards.
Yet it’s Cuenca that has become the largest producer of these hats. Throughout Cuenca, there are Panama Hat factories and museums to tour, with adjacent shops to purchase their wares. The Homero Ortega Museum is one of them, as they claim to be the oldest and most experienced Panama hat producer in Ecuador. For more about Cuenca’s Panama Hat production, take a look at the Panama Hat section of our Cuenca Travel Guide.
Artisan Towns of Azuay Province
About an hour’s drive north of Cuenca lies a trio of towns that are highly regarded for their artisan products. Gualaceo, Chordeleg, and Sigsig each offer intimate shopping experiences. Here, shoppers can hunt down local crafts from right within the charming Andean communities that produce them.
Perhaps most notable is Chordeleg, where dozens of jewelry and craft shops line the towns pretty streets. Go during the mornings on a weekend, when vendors fill its Plaza Artesanal selling their wares. More about what to do in Chordeleg and it’s two neighboring villages can be found in the Artisan Towns section in the Cuenca Travel Guide.
13) Swing off the End of the World!
Ecuador has a love affair with large crazy swings that fly high over cliffsides. The swing the Casa de Arbol in Baños is thought to be the original and has become the most popular of Ecuador’s high-flying swings. But other imitators have since popped up in additional places throughout the country that we’d dare say may be even better than the original!
So here are a few of the best swings to check out in Ecuador.
The Original Swing at the End of the World: Casa del Arbol
This famous treehouse near Baños is the swing that started it all. It’s often known as the “swing at the end of the world” and it’s a must-do activity in this adventure hub town in Ecuador.
The Casa del Arbol swing costs $1 and is accessible by bus ($1), shuttle van ($5), or even a 3-hour hike from Baños. Given the swing’s rise to fame, there is often a queue of people waiting to get their Instagram pic.
Swing High over Ecuador’s Capital
This swing recently sprung up on the side of the Pichincha Volcano, looming over Quito. Adventurous souls can now soar high above Ecuador’s capital city on this swing while nervously enjoying views of the metropolis down below.
As of last visit (2019), the swing is free. This awesome swing is accessible by the TeleferiQo cable car ($8.50) from Quito, which is really one of the best things to do in Ecuador on its own merits. The 18-minute cable car ride is one of the highest in the world, as it whisks passengers up from the city to an altitude of 4,000 meters (about 2.5 miles high). That’s where this swing above Quito awaits. Read more info in the TeleferiQo section of our Quito Travel Guide.
Swing over the Quilotoa Crater
The Quilotoa Crater boasts an absolutely stunning natural setting to swing over. This crazy swing soars out over a crater lake! The Quilotoa Crater swing is reached via a short hike down into the crater and costs $1 for a few minutes of awe-inducing swing action! You can get to this crater swing during a Quilotoa day trip from Quito or while trekking the Quilotoa Loop.
14) Stretch Yourself Across the Equator Line
Did you know the country of “Ecuador” literally translates to “equator?” The equator is a pretty big deal in Ecuador. This line dividing the north and south hemispheres slices right through Ecuador and even the Galapagos Islands too.
A visit to the equator line is a major tourist attraction and point of interest in Ecuador. It’s a fun novelty to hover over both sides of the earth at once. If you’re coming to the country named after the equator, you kinda have to take a trip to the famous line!
There are many different places to cross the equator in Ecuador. The most popular of the bunch is known as Mitad del Mundo, (Middle of the World), easily accessible from Quito. This is where visitors will find the main equator monument and that big yellow equator line to snap an equator selfie on top of.
The neighboring Museo Solar Intiñan is another interesting equatorial attraction. Here, visitors can perform some suspicious experiments along the line.
Does draining water really change directions one each side of the equator? You’ll have to go and judge for yourself. We question the validity of such experiments, even though we clearly had trouble walking a straight line on the equator. It’s claimed that the hemisphere’s forces tug at you.
For more about these equator sites, which ones to visit, whether it’s really worth going to, and how to get to the equator from Quito, all the info is included here in the equator section of our big Travel Guide to Quito.
15) Take a Dip in Ecuador’s Volcanic Thermal Pools
Given the volcanic origins to Ecuador’s Andes, it should come as no surprise that hot springs abound throughout the country’s midsection. After a grueling trek through the Andes or during a particularly chilly day, indulging in a visit to Ecuador’s many thermal pools can feel downright heavenly.
The thermal baths of Papallacta are a popular escape from Quito and boast volcano views among the more than dozen of pools to soak in there. The town of Baños, Ecuador, is appropriately named as it translates to “bathing” and offers a number of thermal pools and spas to bathe in. Take a long soak in one of the many pools at the large Las Piscinas de la Virgen complex.
Yet a personal favorite thermal spa in Ecuador can be found at a different municipality also named Baños. It’s in the Baños of Azuay province, on the outskirts of Cuenca, where you can find Piedra de Agua. Their 3-hour “spa circuit” includes eight different treatments. This ranges from Turkish baths to steam baths to subterranean contrast pools. Perhaps most interesting is the volcanic mud exfoliation treatment, involving two different mud baths!
At the conclusion of the spa circuit, guests can spend as much time as they’d like relaxing in the three warm outdoor mineral pools. And they’ll even deliver drinks to you on a little boat that floats with you in the warm waters! It’s all a great experience and economical too. Go during the 2×1 deal, on Monday, Wednesdays, & Fridays, which drops the price of the spa circuit down to only $17.50. More logistical info for this affordable luxury experience is covered in the spa section of our Cuenca Travel Guide.
16) Go Ziplining through the Cloud Forest
There are a number of great ziplining runs throughout Ecuador. You can find ziplines in the Andes surrounding Cuenca and others soaring over canyons near Baños. Yet we suggest the best ziplining opportunity in Ecuador is the canopy tours offered through the lush Mindo Cloud Forest.
Mindo may be best known for birding. Yet it is also becoming an awesome hub for adventure pursuits in this unique cloud forest environment. There are some serious ziplining routes in Mindo to soar amongst the toucans.
We’ve been ziplining all around the world, but Mindo’s canopy tours really stick out for the length of their runs, the cloud forest environment, and what we’ve found to be the best value zipline tour in the world.
It takes more than an hour to complete all ten zip-lines that add up to a 3,640-meter long course (nearly 12,000 feet). Yet it only costs $20 USD for the entire length of this awesome canopy tour. Find more about this adventure in the Ziplining section of our Mindo Travel Guide. It’s not only one of Mindo’s best activities. Their ziplining courses are firmly one of the best things to do in Ecuador!
17) Don’t Only Admire Ecuador’s Churches, Experience Them
Ecuador boasts a handful of impressive churches and cathedrals scattered about the country. Even those who may not be fascinated by these religious structures should find appeal with the experiences that can be had throughout Ecuador’s churches.
It’s not only about the artwork, architecture, history, and religious significance. Many of Ecuador’s cathedrals can be climbed for their spectacular surrounding views, among other interesting experiences.
Climb the Basilica del Voto Nacional for Views & Maybe a Cerveza
Quito’s Basilica del Voto Nacional is a prime example of an incredible experience that can be had in an Ecuadorian church. This basilica includes a rickety climb up many stairs, ladders, and even a walkway across the roof of the church. Ultimately you’ll reach the top of a spire that affords awesome views of Quito.
Oh, and you can also drink a beer from high up within one of the basilica’s towers. It’s in a semi-hidden little cafe. You can see exactly where to find it and all the logistical info in the Basilica section of the Quito Guide.
Ascend the Spiral Staircase of Cuenca’s New Cathedral to a Bell Tower with No Bells
Cuenca’s Cathedral de la Inmaculada, AKA the New Cathedral, took nearly a hundred years to complete. Construction finally wrapped up in 1975. The result is now one of the largest churches in South America.
Visitors can climb the bell towers for views of the city and take an up-close look at the Cathedral’s signature blue domes. While atop the cathedral you can also learn about why the bell towers don’t have bells. Learn more in the New Cathedral section of this Guide to Cuenca.
Unlock Ecuador’s Oldest Catholic Church: Iglesia de Balbanera
While this modest church pales in comparison to the grandiosity mentioned above, it’s no less impressive to visit what is recognized as the oldest catholic church in Ecuador. Many people make pilgrimages here for the ancient Virgin of Balbanera. The very old relic from Spain is on display near the church’s altar.
Yet what we found to be impressive is the experience of using the original keys to lock the church’s half-millennia-old door! The Balbanera Church is easily visited from the town of Riobamba. Directions can be found in the La Colta section of our full Riobamba Travel Guide.
18) Go Whitewater Rafting from the Mountains to the Jungle
With fast-moving rivers flowing down the Andes mountains, there are some excellent whitewater rafting opportunities in Ecuador!
Down towards the Amazon basin, the town of Tena is a main base for whitewater rafting activity in Ecuador. The Jatunyacu River, which flows into the Napo River, is a major tributary to the Amazon. And it makes for some fine whitewater rafting. And it’s not every day you can have the opportunity to go whitewater rafting in the Amazon basin.
The Jatunyacu River is the most popular whitewater run in the area, with class III+ rapids in a picturesque jungle setting. The rapids are mild enough for beginners yet still offer some bouncy thrills across swift moving waves. Trips down the Jatunyacu are priced from $50 – $85 and many reputable operators can be found in Tena.
Moving further up in the Andes, the adventure hub of Baños offers some more whitewater action down the rushing Pastaza River. The dips and spills on class III & IV rapids can really add a jolt of adrenaline to any Ecuador trip! It’s a pretty setting too, given the river flows down amidst towering canyon walls in some sections.
With prices set around $30 for the 5-hour rafting tour from Baños, it’s one of the most economical whitewater rafting trips we’ve encountered anywhere in the world. There’s no shortage of rafting operators around town offering the trip daily within this price range.
Lastly, in Mindo, there is an exhilarating tube-rafting experience unlike we’ve seen anywhere else in the world. The rivers around Mindo are too shallow for true river rafts. Yet the river can be way too intense to float down on an innertube. So rafting is accomplished by roping several tubes together to form a makeshift raft. It’s then used for a thrilling ride through the cloud forest, while a tubing guide navigates the rock-strewn river!
It’s all quite the experience. And this tube rafting in Mindo is yet another adventure bargain. If you can round up a few friends to go together, the price can be as low as $6 per person. That gets you an exciting run that lasting about a half-hour, depending on how fast the water is flowing. You can read more about this cloud forest tube-rafting in our Mindo Travel Guide.
19) Stroll Guayaquil’s Impressive Malecon
While many of Ecuador’s beaches boast pleasant seaside malecons (waterfront boardwalks), we’d argue that the riverfront walkway of Guayaquil’s Malecon 2000 reigns supreme. The 2.5- kilometer promenade boasts excellent views of the River Guayas. It meanders past gardens, monuments, museums, restaurants, artisanal markets, shopping malls, and other fun attractions.
Perhaps most notable is the La Perla! Soaring 57 meters high above Guayaquil, La Perla is touted as the largest ferris wheel in South America. Wander further down the malecon to hop aboard the Barco Morgan. This pirate ship takes passengers up the Guayas River for views of the expansive malecon. For added fun, there’s an unlimited drink option!
Taking just a short jaunt off Malecon 2000 will bring you to one of the Guayaquil’s most beloved attractions, the Iguana Park. That’s where you can always find the namesake reptiles roaming freely. Meanwhile, the other end of the malecon stretches towards the colorful and historic Santa Ana neighborhood.
For more on all of these attractions, on and off Malecon 2000, browse through our complete travel guide of the 15 Best Things to Do in Guayaquil.
20) Eat Delicious Local Ecuadorian Cuisine throughout the Country
Ecuador has some interesting local cuisine to try while traveling throughout the country. The food across Ecuador varies regionally. Local specialties can be as diverse as Ecuador’s landscapes. Seafood reigns king along the coast. Meanwhile, warm comfort foods are found in abundance across the Andean highlands.
Yet regardless of location, eating is a thing to do in Ecuador! And it should be noted to seek out some of the delicious local specialties throughout the country. So here are just a few notable dishes to look for:
Eat Ecuadorian Ceviche along the Coast
Ceviche is a national dish in Ecuador and this country has a different take on the marinated seafood dish, compared to other Latin American nations. Ecuadorian ceviche tends to be very saucy and soupy. The ceviche here is always served with a spoon in a bowl that is so very full of all the tangy citrus juices the seafood was marinated in.
We’ve eaten ceviche in just about every country that serves it across the Americas. Personally, we find Ecuadorian ceviche to be the best in the world. (Shh… don’t tell Peru we said so.)
Ceviches of fish, shrimp, and octopus are all popular. These many forms of ceviche are common along Ecuador’s coast and the Galapagos. But you can also find ceviche inland too. One local Ecuadorian ceviche chain that we frequent and recommend is Los Cebiches de la Ruminahui, with nearly 50 locations including in Quito, Guayaquil, Cuenca, Ambato, Ibarra, Manta and more.
Be Charmed by Hornado in the Highlands
Hornado is whole roasted pig and is found in just about every Andean market in Ecuador. It’s a local favorite. The resulting pork is extremely tender, well-seasoned, and salty. A plate comes with some crispy skin along with traditional sides like mote (hominy), llapingachos (thick potato pancakes), and veggies.
Yet the experience of getting hornado at the market is nearly as satisfying as the dish itself. The women selling their hornado are charmingly aggressive to get you to choose their particular stall. These hornado vendors always hold out samples of their best cuts for potential customers to try. This happens all while lapping on the praise, telling passersby how good looking they are to woo them for a purchase. Markets in Cuenca, Gualaceo, and Riobamba are just a few cities that are particularly known for their hornado.
Adventurous Eaters Can Try Cuy
Yes, it’s guinea pig.
Guinea pig, known here as cuy, is indeed a local specialty in the southern highlands of Ecuador. A whole-roasted guinea pig is something for adventurous eaters to try. Look for it around here in Cuenca and the town of Loja too.
More Local Ecuadorian Cuisine to Try
This all just scratches the surface on local specialties to eat while in Ecuador. Yet here are a few more favorites to keep an eye out for during meal times:
- Fritada – A national dish of well-seasoned fried chunks of pork. Look for it in Quito, Otavalo, and Latacunga, among other highland locations.
- Locro de Papa – A hearty potato soup that’s made complete with cheese and avocado. Find it throughout the highlands, particularly around Quito.
- Churrasco – Ecuadorian steak & eggs. It’s a favorite found throughout the highlands.
- Bolon – Fried ball of plantains and cheese. Eat Ecuador’s most delicious breakfast along the coast, alongside a cafecito.
- Encebollado – Fish stew that is a national dish. It’s found along the coast, is often eaten in mornings, and helps cure hangovers.
- Cangrejo criollo – Creole crab is a local specialty to Guayaquil that’s as fun to eat as it is delicious.
Best Places to Visit in Ecuador
Reading through this article, you’ve likely noticed a few destinations that have been repeatedly mentioned. Cities such as Quito and Cuenca can make excellent travel hubs to stay in to pursue further adventures. Yet there are many more places to consider than those two cities.
The following can be used as a rough suggestion to help plan a trip.
- Quito (3-4 days)
- Mindo (1-3 days)
- Amazon (3-5 days)
- Baños (2-3 days)
- Quilotoa Loop trek (3-4 days)
- Riobamba (1-3 days)
- Alausi (Devil’s Nose Train, 1 day)
- Cuenca (3-4 days)
- Guayaquil (1-2 days)
- Beach (Salinas or Montañita, as time permits)
- Galapagos Islands (1-2 weeks)
How Much Time to Spend in Ecuador & Where to Travel
Tailor an Ecuador itinerary that best matches your interests and time constraints. Do note that the amount of time suggested for each destination (above) is on the low side. This is so travelers can attempt to maximize a trip to Ecuador. Those who have more time should definitely consider staying in each location for far longer than the above suggestions.
Spend as much time in Ecuador as you possibly can! A two-week trip to Ecuador can be nice. But more time is needed to venture to each of the highlights suggested within this guide.
Exactly where to travel in Ecuador depends greatly on the amount of time you have and personal interests. For example, those who have no interest in adventure activities can easily skip Baños. Not into trekking? Then definitively cut out the Quilotoa Loop entirely and consider a visit to the crater as a day trip from Quito instead.
Short on time? It would be a shame to miss the Amazon. Yet doing is perhaps the best way to save on time that can instead to allocated in other locations throughout Ecuador. It can also extend your travel budget.
Meanwhile, many people regularly skip over Riobamba. It could make sense to follow suit. But those who want to see Ecuador’s highest mountain must keep the oft-overlooked town firmly on their list. Guayaquil is another city that’s regularly passed. But if transiting through Guayaquil anyways, we find it to be well worth spending a day or two.
Ecuador Travel Itinerary
The following itinerary can be a logical route in attempting to visit many of the best places in Ecuador.
How to Travel Around Ecuador
Getting from place to place can be accomplished in a variety of ways depending on preferences and budget. Consider:
- Public buses
- Shuttle buses
- Hop-on-hop-off tour buses
- Guided tours
Bus Travel in Ecuador
Ecuador’s public buses can be a great way to travel around Ecuador for those who are comfortable with independent travel. Buses in Ecuador are frequent, reliable, comfy, and inexpensive. Expect to pay roughly $1 for each hour traveled.
Yet there are some minor safety concerns to be aware of. The mountain roads are precarious and bus drivers have been known to drive faster than they should. Accidents are rare. But they do indeed happen. We suggest avoiding night buses, which tend to have a greater frequency of accidents. And, always, always buckle up!
Also, know there have been reports of petty theft on buses in Ecuador. So travelers should keep valuables secure and close while on public buses. After taking around 100 different buses throughout the country, we’ve never experienced or seen theft on buses. But it can happen to unsuspecting passengers.
Lastly, know that most public buses do not have restrooms onboard. Plan accordingly.
Each city in Ecuador has a bus station, often called Terminal Terrestre. There, visitors can find up-to-date timetables and purchase tickets.
Shuttle buses can be an alternate consideration to buses. These are full-sized vans that ply popular routes in Ecuador, such as between Cuenca and Guayaquil. They cost only slightly more than a regular bus. Shuttle buses can sometimes be found at bus stations. Or enquire at a tourism agency within the city you’re traveling from.
Hop-on-hop-off buses can provide a more comfortable and safe bus option for traveling Ecuador. Companies like Wanderbus have set itineraries with departures on certain days. Passengers can choose to stay in each destination as long as they desire and then hop back on the bus for the next segment. There are different itineraries to choose from that venture to most of the destinations suggested throughout this guide. It does cost more than public buses. Yet the convenience, comfort, and safety can be worth it.
Guided tours of Ecuador can be a great option for the most convenience. Professional travel guides can help navigate the country as they effortlessly whisk travelers to all the best spots. Of course, this will cost more than traveling independently.
But there are still some great budget-friendly tours available. Many Ecuador tours also include the domestic flights to the Galapagos and even cruises throughout the islands. Browse through the different tours offered by Gadventures and Intrepid Travel.
Flights within Ecuador
Even though Ecuador is a small country, travel times can be lengthy. When covering long-distances, it can sometimes make sense to fly. For example, the bus from Quito to Lago Agrio (for Amazon tours) takes more than eight hours. A flight will save precious time by getting to the Amazon in less than an hour.
Flights between Quito and Cuenca or between Quito and Guayaquil can often make sense too. But just know that flying between these major cities bypasses many of the best places to visit in Ecuador that can be visited using land transport.
Of course, going to the Galapagos can only be accomplished by plane. Flights to the Galapagos depart from both Quito and Guayaquil.
There are three main domestic airlines in Ecuador:
- LATAM (formerly LAN)
All three are fairly comparable in terms of quality of service. We suggest choosing whichever airline has the best price and/or schedule for your trip. Yet if prices are similar across the board, we’d suggest Avianca and LATAM over TAME, based on our experience flying with these airlines. TAME has been known to unexpectedly cancel flights.
Happy Travels in Ecuador!
We hope this Ecuador travel guide has helped to provide trip ideas and travel inspiration. Ecuador is such a fascinating country to explore. Ecuador holds a beautiful culture. The diversity of landscapes is unparalleled. The nature is incredible. The cuisine delivers interesting dishes to try. Plus, it’s a country that delivers excellent value.
And we hope that we’ve been able to show that there are so many fun things to do in Ecuador!
If this guide has been helpful, please let us know in the comments. Or give us a shout with any questions. And if you’ve traveled to Ecuador and you have your own favorite things to do, share them! 🙂
Above all else, have a great trip to Ecuador. Or as they say here, ¡buen viaje!