Postcard-pretty centers, waves splashing white-sand beaches, Kichwa villages, Amazonian rainforest and the breathtaking Andes – a dazzling array of wonders is squeezed into this compact country.
The historic centers of Quito and Cuenca are lined with photogenic plazas, 17th-century churches and monasteries, and beautifully restored mansions. Wandering the cobblestone streets amid Spanish colonial architecture is a good insight into the troubled history of the area. Beyond the cities, the Ecuadorian landscape unfolds in all its startling variety. There are Andean villages renowned for their colorful textiles and sprawling markets, Afro-Ecuadorian towns where days end with meals of fresh seafood and memorable sunsets, and remote settlements in the Amazon where shamans still harvest the traditional rainforest medicines of their ancestors.
Setting off on a hike in the Andes can seem like stepping into a fairy tale: a patchwork of small villages, gurgling brooks and rolling fields and maybe a condor slowly wheeling overhead. Although the view from the top is sublime, you don’t have to scale a mountain to enjoy the Andes. These verdant landscapes make a fine backdrop for mountain biking, horseback riding or hiking from village to village, sleeping at local guesthouses along the way. Ecuador’s other landscapes offer equally alluring adventures, from surfing tight breaks off the Pacific coast to white-water rafting rivers along the jungle-clad banks of the Oriente.
The famous Galápagos Islands, with their volcanic, otherworldly landscapes, are a magnet for wildlife lovers. Here, you can respectfully observe massive lumbering tortoises, scurrying marine iguanas (the world’s only seagoing lizard), doe-eyed sea lions, prancing blue-footed boobies and a host of other unusual species both on land and sea. The Amazon rainforest offers a vastly different wildlife-watching experience. Set out on the rivers and forested trails in search of monkeys, sloths, toucans and river dolphins. Some lodges also have canopy towers offering magnificent views (and a better chance to see birdlife). Mindo's cloud forest is considered a birder's paradise, and the country has counted more than 1600 avian species.
After days of Ecuadorian adventures, there are many appealing places where you can go to relax amid awe-inspiring scenery. Head to the highlands to recharge at a historic hacienda, or find Zen-like beauty at a cloud-forest lodge near Mindo. There are peaceful, timeless mountain villages like Vilcabamba and picturesque former gold-mining towns such as Zaruma that offer a perfect antidote to the vertiginous rush of modern-day life. And for a coastal getaway, you'll have plenty of options, from tiny end-of-the-road settlements like Ayampe and Olón to charming towns on the Galápagos, with great beaches and magnificent sunsets.
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These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Ecuador.
Just northeast of Puerto Ayora is this iconic national-park site, where over 200 scientists and volunteers are involved with research and conservation efforts, the most well known of which involves a captive breeding program for giant tortoises. Paths leading through arid-zone vegetation take you past tortoise enclosures, where you can look at these Galápagos giants. There's also a baby-tortoise house with incubators (when the tortoises weigh about 1.5kg or are about four years old, they’re repatriated to their home islands).
About an hour’s boat ride northeast of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is León Dormido (Kicker Rock), so named because of its resemblance to a sleeping lion. León Dormido is an imposing, vertical, sheer-walled tuff cone that has been eroded in half; smaller boats can sail between the two rocks. Because there’s no place to land, this site is usually seen by snorkelers, passing boats or from the top of Cerro de las Tijeretas outside of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, often to dramatic effect when the sun is setting. Day trips from Puerto Boquerizo Moreno here are around $80.
South of Santa Rosa is El Chato Tortoise Reserve, where you can observe giant tortoises in the wild. When these virtually catatonic, prehistoric-looking beasts extend their accordion-like necks to feed, it’s an impressive sight. The reserve is also a good place to look for short-eared owls, Darwin’s finches, yellow warblers, Galápagos rails and paint-billed crakes (these last two are difficult to see in the long grass). The reserve is part of the national park and a guide is required.
The summit of this volcano (1097m) is famous for its 7km-wide caldera and steaming fumaroles. Hundreds of giant tortoises can be seen here, especially from June to December, and juvenile hawks soar on thermal updrafts. The view is fantastic. Permits are required to hike this long, steep and waterless trail and to camp near the summit (two days required).
Puerto Egas is one of the most popular sites in the Galápagos – a long, flat, black lava shoreline where eroded shapes form lava pools, caves and inlets that house a great variety of wildlife. It's a great place to see colonies of marine iguanas basking in the sun and hundreds of Sally Lightfoot crabs attracting hunting herons. The inlets are also a favorite haunt of the surprisingly agile Galápagos fur sea lions.
The westernmost point of Ecuador has three main attractions: La Fae Beach, with a boarded walkway where you can watch a seal colony; El Morro (or little hill), with a lighthouse and incredibly spectacular views over Salinas; and La Chocolatera – a point named for the way the tempestuous waves break on the rocks, creating foam and the impression of a big bowl of chocolate.
A dry landing deposits you at the beginning of a 2km-long trail that brings you past this postcard-perfect saltwater lagoon. It has twice the salinity of the ocean, and is a tuff cone, like a chimney from the main volcano. The trail leads to the lower lava slopes of Volcán Darwin (1280m), where various volcanic formations and stunning views of surrounding slopes can be observed. There are some steep sections on this trail. A panga ride along the cliffs to Tagus Cove will enable you to see the historical graffiti and various seabirds, usually including Galápagos penguins and flightless cormorants. There are snorkeling opportunities in the cove.
In terms of sheer white-sand beauty, this beach is the rival of any in South America. You’ll find it at the end of a 2.5km paved trail southwest of Puerto Ayora. In addition to swimming (a spit of land provides protection from the strong and dangerous currents on the exposed side), surfing or just sunbathing, you can see sharks, marine iguanas, pelicans and the occasional flamingo. There’s no drinking water or other facilities.
Not only is Isla Isabela the largest Galápagos island, but its imposing skyline of grumbling volcanoes makes it the most striking. Volcán Wolf, at the northern tip of the island, is the highest point in the Galápagos, standing at 1707m (5600ft), and is one of the most active volcanoes in the archipelago – young lava covers the caldera floor. Ten eruptions have occurred between 1797 and 1982. The 1982 eruption saw fountains of lava emanating from vents before rising over the rim.
An epic solo adventure in South America
Introducing Ecuador & the Galápagos Islands
When to go to Ecuador