Many of South America’s greatest hits can be found in Ecuador – from Andean peaks and the Amazon to tropical beaches, Inca ruins, colonial cities and the wonders of the Galapagos Islands. Not bad for a country the size of Colorado!
The big question is where to start. To help you on your way, here are the best places to visit in Ecuador, from vibrant cities to wilderness escapes.
1. Explore Quito, Ecuador's vibrant capital
Strewn across a mountain valley and surrounded by volcanoes, Quito is quite the spectacle. The Ecuadorian capital is a fascinating melange of cultures and a living museum of Spanish-era architecture. For the full panorama, take the TelefériQo gondola up the Pichincha volcano, but give yourself a day or two to acclimatize to Quito’s lofty altitude before venturing to the high ground.
In the meantime, admire the faded grandeur of the charming, Unesco-listed old town, calling at Museo de la Ciudad to learn more about the city’s colorful backstory. And visit the churches – Quito has one of the largest collections of old churches in South America, with the Basilica del Voto Nacional and the gilded Church of la Compañía de Jesús among the highlights.
Quito’s markets are another must-see. Watch shamanic healers ply their trade at Mercado San Francisco before sampling local specialties such as locro de papas (potato stew), roast guinea pig and cow’s feet soup. And when the sun goes down? Head to La Ronda, a former red-light district turned entertainment quarter, which has live music and lots of cozy bars.
2. Stand on the equator
Straddling the equator – hence its name – Ecuador is one of the few places where travelers can take selfies of themselves with one foot in each hemisphere. A huge granite monument dubbed Mitad del Mundo (‘the middle of the world’) marks the location of the equator north of Quito – only it’s in the wrong place.
Modern GPS sets the record straight, placing the true equator by the Museo Solar Inti Ñan. Guides here will show you water swirling differently on each side of the line, plus other fun demonstrations relating to the equator. You’ll have to decide for yourself if it’s just a smoke-and-mirrors illusion or a real scientific phenomenon.
3. Adventure to volcanoes at Baños
Baños is the place to go if you like living dangerously. Its main draw is the menacing Tungurahua volcano, which has been belching lava and ash since the nineties, periodically forcing residents to flee. Why do they come back? Well, the volcano also heats the thermal baths that the town is named after and revered for. The steamy spas are highly restorative after a day of trekking, rafting or mountain biking through the surrounding forests.
4. Discover natural encounters in The Oriente
Raindrops pattering on leaves, toucans darting between trees, lush greenery on all sides – The Oriente is a must for any naturalist. This steamy hotbed of biodiversity is where the cloud forests that flank the Andes plunge into the Amazon. More than 1600 bird species are found here, giving voice to one of the most glorious dawn choruses on the planet. Hidden in the trees like Bond villain lairs are wonderful eco-lodges such as Mashpi, which offer guided nature walks and canoe expeditions, with profits helping fund conservation.
5. Hike along the Avenue of Volcanoes
A bit of trivia: the closest point on Earth to the sun is in Ecuador. These bragging rights belong to the 6,263m (20,549ft) Chimborazo volcano. It’s not the highest summit on the planet – that’s Nepal's Mt Everest – but due to a phenomenon known as equatorial bulge, the planet isn’t perfectly spherical, and the top of Chimborazo is actually closer to the sun than anywhere else.
Chimborazo is one of eight snow-capped peaks that line the so-called Avenue of Volcanoes, which runs down Ecuador like a knobbly spine. All these peaks are incredible to hike up or around – if your body can handle the dizzying altitudes. Take it slowly to acclimatize; herds of vicuña, a wild relative of the domesticated llama, will keep you company on the way.
6. Find architectural treasures in Cuenca
Ecuador’s most beautiful city, Cuenca, has a springlike climate year-round and some of the best-preserved colonial architecture in South America. Its ornate buildings, leafy plazas and blue-domed Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception helped the city earn a rightful place on Unesco’s World Heritage List.
The brutalist Museo Pumapungo proves Cuenca also has a modern outlook, housing a fine collection of contemporary art. In the city’s backyard is Cajas National Park, a mountainous wildlife reserve with alpacas, Andean condors and giant hummingbirds. It's a great sampling platter of what Ecuador has to offer.
7. Rattle down the Devil’s Nose
A railway that zigzags up the side of a mountain, the Devil’s Nose is a must for train nerds. Originally built to bring fresh produce from the tropics to the Andes, it’s now a glorified back-and-forth tourist attraction with a whiff of Disney about it. Still, it’s hard not to be impressed by the engineering behind this vertiginous railway line and the sheer audacity of laying track so close to a rocky precipice. The railway closed during the pandemic, but assuming it reopens as normal, book tickets well ahead as they sell out fast.
8. Discover pre-colonial Ecuador at Ingapirca
For a glimpse of the country’s pre-colonial history, head to Ingapirca, where llamas graze among the best-preserved ruins in Ecuador. The settlement was originally inhabited by the Canari people before the marauding Incas came along. Spanish colonists would later reduce the place to rubble, but enough remains to give a sense of its former grandeur. Coming with a guide will bring color and context to a tour of the ruins; agencies in Cuenca run regular trips to the site.
9. Shop for local crafts at Otavalo
This picturesque little town is home to one of the largest permanent markets in South America. A one-stop shop for alpaca wool garments, handmade Ecuadorian jewelry, native art and other products made by the indigenous Otavaleños people, it’s an ideal place to shop for souvenirs before jetting home. And it's easy to reach from Quito by local bus (two hours each way).
10. Meet the wild inhabitants of the Galapagos Islands
You could be forgiven for arriving on the islands of the Galapagos archipelago and wondering what all the fuss is about. In places, the archipelago looks more like a desert than a hotbed of biodiversity, but it slowly reveals its secrets – especially when you slip beneath the waves. Here, pirouetting sea lions, stealthy sharks, majestic rays, colorful fish, diving pelicans, swimming iguanas, whales, penguins and much more await.
Don’t try to do it by yourself. Book onto a liveaboard cruise and let resident naturalists provide the context to help you understand this remarkable, one-of-a-kind ecosystem. They'll also point out evolutionary marvels that you would otherwise miss.
11. Experience cultural encounters in Guayaquil
The beating commercial heart of Ecuador, Guayaquil won’t win first prize in many beauty contests, but its burgeoning cultural scene, lively bars and revitalized neighborhoods are reason enough to hang around. The public square known as the Malecón offers a masterclass in urban renewal; this rebooted riverside promenade is lined with sculptures, gardens and restaurants and is home to the quirky Museo en Miniatura, which tells the history of the city using miniature dioramas.
Cerro Santa Ana is another fine spot to while away an afternoon, with its colorful hillside homes, bars and cafes. Check out the MAAC Theater for plays, concerts and film – but don’t expect much in English. For the best food in town, head to the suburb of Urdesa, northwest of the center; for nightlife, try Las Peñas, immediately north of downtown.
12. Bask on Ecuador's Pacific beaches
The frigid Andes feel a long way away when you’re sipping a cocktail on Ecuador’s Pacific shore, which boasts a whole host of excellent beaches. The coastal town of Salinas spills out onto a fine stretch of shoreline, and it has a decent nightlife, making it popular with locals and tourists.
More laidback and less developed is the ramshackle beachfront village of Montañita; its cheap digs, decent waves and party vibe attract a steady stream of bronzed backpackers. To escape the crowds, check out the low-key beach towns of Ayangue, north of Salinas, or Puerto Cayo, north of Montañita.